Saturday, May 30, 2009

Further Thoughts on the Loss of My Sister Esme

My beautiful sister Esme was murdered on March 7th, 2009, in Cincinnati, at the age of 13.  As you might expect, I have constant thoughts about her and many, many other things that touch on her life and death.  Being a writer of sorts, I feel a need to write about them, and have been searching for a way to grapple with this event and the enormous repercussions it has had in my life and that of many others.  It has been difficult to find an elegant way to do this, so screw elegance.  I am just going to write stuff that is going through my head, in simply numbered thoughts, when I feel the courage to do so.  

I In the wake of my sister’s murder, the most recurring experience for me is of facing the unfaceable, though it be the one thing my life is forcing me to deal with, with no way out, no quarter given, no breathing room, no softening. It is a terrible wall that I bump into several times a day, that I keep pushing into, trying to get through, over or around, but it stretches as high as I can see and to the horizons on my left and right. And my thoughts are so useless, but unstoppable; I just don’t want this to have happened. Please, can’t we just go back. I don’t want this to have happened. I want Esme back. This is one of the only things in life that is absolutely non-negotiable, and the only thing I can think of right now that I want to change. The wall is still there; I can see it whenever I close my eyes, and then again when I open them.

II I don’t believe there is any ultimate explanation for these kinds of events, or to the organization of reality. I don’t believe in any ultimate purpose or meaning to our existence. I don’t believe that there is any kind of method to this madness which will become clear to me at some point, perhaps upon my own death. The one thing that I have told myself and others again and again during this ordeal has been “it is what it is.” It is what it is. That’s all I can say, all I can see. Though I have been agnostic regarding god and the nature of things beyond what we can see for a long time, I am more doubtful than ever regarding the existence of any kind of conscious, intervening entity beyond the observable. If there is one, I am inclined right now to have nothing to do with him/her/it. I do respect those who have a different relationship and understanding of the world, but I don’t share it.

I don’t think this makes my life meaningless, however. If this makes me a relativist, then so be it, but I do think we can find our own morals, our own goodness, our own purpose in our lives, just as well as we can from traditional spiritual sources. I can look around me and recognize pain, suffering and cruelty, and see many of the things that contribute to these darker pieces of life. By chance, as I see it, the world has evolved in many different directions: toward the beautiful, the unbelievable, the complex, the simple, the frightening, the useless, the mysterious, the enormous, the small, the evil, the ugly, the good. I can see them and find my own way to the things that I hope will make the world a better place and relieve the suffering of some small number of others in the world.

III I have some conflicted feelings about any sort of good that might come from the event of my sister’s murder. Part of me doesn’t want to learn anything from it, and to retain my anger. I don’t want to become a stronger person because of this. I don’t want there to be any good that comes from this, This is all bad, all bad, all bad. You don’t want to ask what I would trade for the happy return of Esme; there might not be anything good left in the world but her smiling face.

But it’s just not true. In my heart, and in the part of me that most shares Esme’s open spirit of love, I do want that explosion of love and light my dad and stepmother talked about in their memorial statement to spread across the world. For myself, I want to be a better person, From Esme’s example, I want to become a braver person. I want to be less selfish with my time and get involved with other people’s lives and in my communities. I want to help others. I want to get involved in my own life and make things happen, make the decisions I need to. I don’t want to mess around any more. I know I’m not likely, nor do I want, to make my life into a saint’s, but I want to keep my eye on the things in life that are important, to me and to the communities that I can touch.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Not more about weeding, please...

I’m going to mention one more thing about weed control that was discussed at the CRAFT on Wednesday. You should probably get used to here me talking about weeding, because we do a lot of it, and it is central to running a good farm. When you really distill the essence of this enterprise, it comes down to just a few basic principles, each a world unto itself. There is planting, putting the plants you want into the soil, and weeding, which is getting rid of the ones you don’t. There is land and soil management, which comes down to keeping things fertile. Those, to my mind, are the biggest basic areas of operation in farming, but going on there are other things like harvesting, marketing, grounds and tool maintenance and personnel management.

Anyway, back to weeding. When we talk of weed control, we are not just talking about physically removing or killing the weeds that are growing in our crops. In a pristine, beautiful, freshly plowed field without a green thing in sight, there are often millions upon millions of little weed seeds lying there in the soil, just waiting for the right moment to germinate (in Spring, that would be NOW). So weed control has many different dimensions. In the shortest term, the farmer wants to remove the weed from the crop so that it doesn’t crowd out the desirable plants. Also, the farmer should remove it before it goes to seed and broadcasts more seeds into the land. Taking a slightly longer perspective, the farmer may want to organize his planting schedule so that the weed problem is minimized, such as starting a plant in the greenhouse so that when it is planted in its bed it has a head start on any weeds, and in an ideal situation may even shade out the weeds.

Taking the long view, a good farmer will want to take the time and manage his land so that he can eventually remove most of the bank of weed seeds existing in the soil, and thus save immense amounts of time and effort in the future, even if it takes some extra thought and energy right now. One interesting concept I heard about at the CRAFT that seems logical and effective addressing both long and short-term weed problems is the stale bed. In essence, the farmer plows, discs and prepares the bed for planting. Then, he waits a period of time, a couple-few days, maybe. Soon enough, he’ll see uncountable little green propeller blades in the soil, just half a centimeter tall, maybe, attached to a short, slender white thread of root. Now, before planting, he runs over the bed with a cultivator, either by hand with a hoe or a tractor, or something, turning up the weeds into the air and the sun where they will hopefully die (on a wet, cloudy, day the weeds will often just re-root, so this is best done when the soil is a bit dry and the sun is shining). NOW, the bed is ready for planting. If you made an effort to do this to all your beds, repeatedly, and also removed the weeds that got by this effort (many will, count on it) before they got to the seed stage, you would in theory keep reducing the seed bank in the soil and weed control would get easier over time.

We do a kind of stale bed process at Appleton, usually by waiting a bit of time between the basic plowing and the final bed preparation, which we often do with a tractor tool called the Perfecta.

Anyway, I think it’s interesting. I also think that weeds themselves are kind of interesting, and often quite attractive (and even tasty and nutritious) plants, but of course I am happy to get rid of them to make way for even tastier things like carrots, beets and radishes, to say nothing of tomatoes, corn and watermelons.

Peace and love to all.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Visits to Other Farms

Most Wednesdays, we have the opportunity to go (if we want to) to a CRAFT event. I’m still not sure what CRAFT stands for (if it stands for anything) but it is an organization of farms in the area that sponsors events where farmers can visit other farms and learn something about how things are done there. Sometimes a specific topic is being discussed in particular, such as greenhouse management or poultry processing, or sometimes it is a tour of the farm with a general presentation of what goes on there and the opportunity to ask questions and talk with other folks.

These can be very interesting, and I’ve tried to take advantage of most of them so far, though it makes an already long day even longer and throws in a spot or more of driving into the mix as well. But I’m thinking I may be in this for the long haul, and it’s good not only to learn everything I can but also to meet other people in the business. At this point, I really enjoy just seeing other farms, what the land is like, how big they are, how they organize their fields, what they grow, what kind of greenhouses they have, etc. Having limited practical experience in the field, sometimes the actual questions and discussions touch on things that I’m not very familiar with, and so the information doesn’t really have an easy time rooting itself to my brain. I should really take notes!

Even so, there are usually interesting things discussed that I can understand to some degree. Today we visited a small farm (2 acres or so) with a smallish CSA (110 half-size shares), and the field manager, a woman named Greta, brought up general and specific issues on all sorts of topics, from soil fertility to marketing. In particular we discussed weed management for a time. Controlling weeds is one of the most difficult and endless parts of farming. A lot of different ideas and techniques were tossed around. It is ideal to get control of the weeds in a field as quickly as possible, before they grow up much, to the point where Greta feels that if the weeds have gotten much bigger than an inch or so you’ve lost the battle and you might as well turn the whole field under, crop and all. That seems a bit extreme to me, and if we did that at Appleton we’d turn under all of our food.

There are all sorts of ways to control weeds at that tiny stage, but they’re not easy. One common way is to use a propane torch on the row before the crop plant has germinated but the weed seeds have. You singe just the topmost layer of soil where most of the germinated threads of weed are; the crop seeds are a bit deeper and are unaffected. I’ve been told that we have one of these devices, but I haven’t seen it in action yet. We were discussing in particular carrot beds, and, well, we’ve done an awful lot of hand weeding on our knees in our carrot beds! It’s a lot of work, but not a particularly unpleasant task, and with a group doing it, there are always some interesting conversations that get going.

Another interesting idea brought up was using large amounts of cardboard as a mulch, or cover, for the crop beds, and as cardboard will eventually decompose, it is also a kind of compost. Apparently it will pretty much kill everything beneath it, and somehow (not sure about the mechanics of this) encourages a lot of worm activity in the upper layer of the soil. The farmer who mentioned this said they even used it as part of a no-till approach, laying it directly on the cover crop from the previous fall, and once the rye or vetch was done, they just cut holes in the cardboard to plant through. Sounds kind of crazy, but there are lots of creative ideas like that out there, and exploring them (as well as more conventional ones) is what these CRAFT events are all about.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Weather, weather, everywhere

One of the pleasures of farming is being tied into the natural cycles and movements of the planet in a meaningful way. I’m talking, of course, primarily about weather. For the first time in my life I’ve made it a habit to check the weather in the evening before I go to sleep and in the morning before I dress for work. The forecast gives me a sense of what I should wear, or bring, to the farm, and not just how many layers or what kind of jacket. Should I bring gloves? Sunglasses? A hat? With a shoulder brim? An extra pair of socks for later? Rain pants? No more just moving from home to car to work, with only seconds between comfortable, climate-controlled shelter.

And of course the weather means something far beyond my comfort. Rain, sun, temperature and wind all have enormous effect on growing things. Last week we had three hot days in a row, reaching the upper 80’s or even 90 all three days. As we were watching the forecasts while the hot weather approached, Jamie and Melissa started to get worried about the lettuce and the spinach. These are both leafy plants that like cool weather, and both have a tendency to bolt when the weather gets too hot, which means that they will send up flower stalks, at which point their leaves generally get very bitter and are no longer good to harvest.

We did a few things to compensate. We irrigated, not so much for the sake of providing water as much as for the cooling effect (especially in the breeze we have most afternoons), we tried a piece of shade fabric (a sturdy piece of cloth that lets some light through but not all of it) on a small patch, and we harvested some of the spinach to sell to local restaurants and markets just to make sure we got something out of this planting in case some of it bolted later on.

The three days were hot, but not terribly uncomfortable for me. There was always a breeze and as long as I drink lots of water I seem to be okay. In any case, the lettuce and spinach has not bolted yet, though the spinach has grown quite large in the oldest planting, far far beyond the ‘baby’ spinach stage. This is now some good, sturdy spinach perfectly ready for the table. We are eating it, and enjoying it.

The last couple of days have been a whirlwind of planting and sowing. Yesterday we spent the morning putting sweet potato plants in the ground, and in the afternoon we planted eggplant. This afternoon Teresa and I did a whirlwind of direct sowing with the G tractor – green beans, four different kinds of sunflowers, two different radishes, hakurai turnips, arugula, tat soi, red mustard, purple mizuna, red Russian kale, cilantro and dill. And I accidentally popped a wheelie on this ancient tractor driving it back up into the barn. It was quite exciting.

Tomorrow we have rain, according to this morning’s forecast, and cool weather. We shall see what happens but I no doubt will make sure to bring my rainjacket and a warm layer of clothing.


Sunday, May 24, 2009

Planxty Irwin, The Foxhunter, For Franny

We'll see if this works!  If it doesn't, I'll soon delete this post and most of you will never know it was even here.

I've been messing around with GarageBand this weekend, putting a few things down, and have sort of gotten one small project to a point of some satisfaction.  I've mostly been playing around with some fiddle music and a couple old originals that I never recorded. 

 The first one here is called "Planxty Irwin" and is by Turlough O'Carolan, a blind, itinerant harpist of early 18th century Ireland.  He composed many lovely pieces, some of classical influence and some of a more folkish bent. I know this tune mostly from a recording by the great band Planxty, but this one is different, slowed down to a waltz tempo and with some guitar and percussion making it sound a bit more American folk than Irish. 

The second one is called The Foxhunter, and it's a quick reel, to which I've added some strumming of the guitar.  The playing on both instruments is a bit clumsy, but I sort of like the effect.

The third one is an old original from the early oughts, for acoustic guitar.  I call it 'For Franny' because my sister Franny said she liked it.   

Okay, clearly I don't understand how to place these songs in my posting with an embedded player, even though the instructions seemed straightforward enough.  But they're just not showing up.  So, I'll just give you the web addresses where you can download them directly if you are so interested.  

For 'Planxty Irwin':

For 'The Foxhunter':

For 'For Franny':

Hopefully you will enjoy them, and I'll try to post more as I record more.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Another Day, Another Tractor

I got some good experience on another tractor today, a John Deere model called the High Crop. I had backed it up about 25 feet once before, but today and yesterday I got some real work done with it. There is more going on with this tractor than with the little G from the 40’s, and it has considerably more power as well. I found it a bit intense at first, just trying to keep it all in my head and stay focused and sharp so that I didn’t take out any fences. There wasn’t really too much danger of that, but I won’t say it was an absolute impossibility either.

I was using it to disc a couple of fields. Discing is a kind of plowing that is done after primary plowing. If you can imagine a field planted in grass, first a tractor pulls an implement with a few sharp, curved wedges through the soil, turning it over, breaking up the sod and the soil. Discing, the tractor pulls an implement with two rows of vertical discs that further break up the soil and even out the level of the soil. After discing, another implement smooths it out further in preparation for making the final planting beds.

In any case, the John Deere has more power, more gears, brakes, two separate implements with their own raising and lowering levers, and a throttle, as well as several other controls that I know nothing about. As I started into a row, I would get in gear, ease up on the clutch and lower the discs (smoothly if possible) into the soil and try to move in a straight line through to the other end of the field. The tricky part comes if the ground is very uneven, with big mounds of dirt and depressions and gullies, and if the soil is soft and deep. In the second field I did, I had to continually adjust the level of the discs in order to find the right compromise between getting deep enough to effectively break up the soil and even it out, and keeping it high enough not to get held back in the thick dirt and not spin my tires around too much.

I think I did alright, and certainly the field looked a lot better after I had spent a couple hours on it than it had at the beginning, but I’m sure I have lots more to learn and plenty of practicing ahead of me.

That's all I'm going to pass along right now.  I hope everyone is doing well.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


Some of you may be interested to know what we grow here at Appleton Farms. We grow a lot of stuff! Not just quantity (we have over 500 shareholders picking up enough vegetables for a family of four for a week from early June through the end of October) but in variety. Even so, we have some notable things missing from the list, such as asparagus, sweet corn (which we offer to our shareholders in partnership with another local farm) and perennial berries like raspberries and blueberries (in fact most sweet fruits except for strawberries and some melons).

But here’s a list: strawberries (4+ varieties), garlic, beets (3+ varieties including the red and white chioggia), carrots (4+ varieties), shell peas, sugar snap peas, snow peas, chard, spinach, lettuce (10 or so varieties including butter, romaine and red leaf types), scallions, potatoes (4+ varieties including a golden, white baking and red), radicchio, radishes (4+ varieties including the stunning easter egg), turnips, several different cabbages including red, green, napa, bok choi, baby bok choi and savoy, kale (3+ varieties), onions (3+ varieties), parsley, cilantro, dill, lots of different greens including arugula, tat soi, red and green mustard, parsnips, leeks (2+ varieties), fennel, shallots, broccoli, sunflowers, green beans, tomatoes (several varieties, including a plum, cherry and few heirloom types), different kinds of basil, summer squash (several varieties), kohlrabi, canteloupe (a couple different varieties), lots of cutting flowers, watermelon (3 different types), popcorn, eggplant (3+ varieties), sweet potatoes, eggplant (4+ varieties), peppers (several bells and many different hot chiles, celery, edamame, lots of different winter squash (including my favorite, blue hubbard), celeriac, escarole, cucumbers (different varieties) brussel sprouts, collards, cauliflower, perennial herbs like chives, sage, mint, oregano, and rutabaga.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Little Growing Plants

I've been asked once or twice what I've enjoyed the most about my experience so far, or what I most look forward to during the coming growing season.  Other than the very obvious anticipation of cooking and eating all the produce we will eventually be harvesting, I would say that I enjoy and look forward to observing all the plants that we grow, from what they look like when they first start to poke their little shoots and leaves out of the soil to their mature selves, laden with ripe fruits, seeds, shoots or leaves.  I look forward to getting to know the plants of the farm, in all of their bountiful aspects, even through and past the harvest to their inevitable fall back into the earth.  
A bird's eye view of a healthy lettuce plant of a romaine variety.
Another lettuce in a fascinating shape, somehow reminding me of the Sydney Opera House.
Potato plants.  Don't eat these leaves, they're poisonous.
Our garden of perennial herbs.
Young beet plants.  These greens are pretty tasty right now, roots and all.
Little carrot plants.
A favorite plant, red russian kale gone to flower.
I have no idea what this weed is, but it's lovely.
A pea plant with one of our first developing pods.
Chives and chive blossoms.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Agave, Bats and Evolution

Just a quick thought this morning on the interconnections between all things.

I’m reading a book of essays called Farming and the Fate of Wild Nature: Essays in Conservation-based Agriculture, and just finished an interesting article by Gary Paul Nabhan on the agave industry. The sap from the agaze plant is used in the making of Tequila, and as such, it is farmed extensively in Mexico.

There are several different agave species, but just one, the blue agave, is responsible for almost all tequila production, and in fact much of it is made from one particular variety of the blue agave or even clones of one individual plant. This greatly limits the genetic variability in the agaves grown commercially, making them much more susceptible to catastrophic disease. They are also generally planted in dense monocultures, without the disease buffers that intercropping with other row crops would give, and without wild margins or barriers that would do the same.  Furthermore, the commercially-grown agave is rarely allowed to flower, thus preventing local bat species from pollinating them, both affecting the stability of bat populations and the ability of the blue agave plants to evolve natural disease resistance along with their pathogens.

This is all fairly straightforward, but what interested me was the way the article framed the relationships between economic cycles and social behavior with not only an agricultural enterprise but also the general ecology of a large part of Mexico and parts of the United States. There was a huge growth in demand for tequila in the 80’s and 90’s (which I personally remember and took some small part in; I am still fond of the occasional margarita) which fueled a boom in agave production. This led to incentives to grow more and more plants in dense, monocultural stands of the quick-maturing blue agave clone. A disease began to spread through the plantations, eventually affecting a large percentage of all agaves grown commercially.

During the boom cycle, growers are encouraged to maximize production as quickly as possible. During the bust cycle, from disease or loss of demand and anything else leading to economic difficulties for growers, there is not the financial ability or will to use more long-term sustainable practices like selecting quality, genetically diverse plants, using intercropping, or allowing some plants to evolve naturally through cross-pollination and natural selection.

It’s sort of like if you win you lose, and if you lose you lose, and every step contributes to the loss of ecological diversity (in wild populations and crops) and economic instability. I would argue that the boom cycles, when things are relatively flush, are the times to get thoughtful about what you’re doing and think of the long-term prospects of your industry and your community, rather than as a time to exploit the cycle for what is often a very brief window of significant growth. This takes education and a sense of personal responsibility to the land and to your community, as well as a long perception of time.

I just wanted to make a comment on the ecology between human economy and natural systems (really we are all enmeshed in one big natural system, in this case from office parties in Manhattan restaurants to bat populations and wild agave species in Mexico) and ended up on a bit of a rant, but that is how things will go sometimes. Anyway, I just thought it was interesting.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

My First Harvest

Today I got my first bit of harvesting in. Just a tease really; we don’t have much that’s actually ripe, or ready, yet, and we don’t start distributing shares until June. But as I mentioned last week we have this field that wasn’t sown with a cover crop last year and hasn’t been plowed under yet (that will probably happen in the next few days) that has a hodge-podge of different crop plants that survived the winter and have put some good, new, nutritious growth out there. The most conspicuous is the garlic. When harvested last year, many stems broke as they were being dug or pulled up, leaving the head of garlic in the ground. These, in turn, sent new leaves up in early Spring. At this stage it is called green garlic, and has not developed any kind of bulb of cloves yet, but it is pretty good to eat and quite aromatic.

Yesterday a crew harvested a bunch and sold it to a semi-fancy Greek restaurant in Ipswich (I was told that they planned to grill them) and today I helped harvest some that we sold to a neighboring farmstand (we have no farmstand of our own). Though we were given spades to dig them up, it seemed that they came up pretty well just by pulling them up by the stalks. For reference, these look like very large scallions, sort of, or teeny-tiny leeks. Sometimes the white part of the stalks near the developing bulb curved around in funny ways. We harvested about 50 pounds or so, cleaned them up a bit and bunched them with rubber-bands, and then I drove them over to the other farm to drop them off.

Kind of a little thing amidst a day of weeding, setting up irrigation pipes, thinning seedlings in the greenhouse and potting up tomato and pepper seedlings, but significant in my mind because the harvest, of course, is what we’re all working for and when we get to see the fruits of our labors. No matter that this garlic was planted last year, when I was far away, and has mostly come up by accident anyway, it’s still food, a wonderful gift of the earth, the sun, the rain and a lot of hard work, and it felt good to get it up and out there.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Birds of Appleton Farms: The Killdeer

Appleton Farms is a great place for birds and for birdwatching. Being an avid birder, I have of course noticed a lot of the birds that make Appleton their home or a stopping off point on the way to some other place, and I hope to write about them from time to time on this blog. The list of birds I’ve seen so far (or heard) is decent, though I haven’t yet gone out on an early morning walk focused just on birds.  I’m there early enough already, most days of the week.  But I've seen Eastern Bluebird, Cooper’s Hawk Red-tailed Hawk, Pine Warbler, American Pipit, Barred Owl (in the wooded Grass Rides), Barn Swallow, American Crow, American Goldfinch, Eastern Phoebe…that’s just a small selection.

There’s one bird that we, as farmers, have especially close contact with, and that’s the killdeer. The thing about the killdeer is that it likes to nest in the kind of habitat that looks exactly like our fields. Correction - the killdeer likes to nest in our fields. Killdeers are generally found on grassy fields, dirt fields, lawns, muddy edges of lakes or reservoirs, in general just about any open area of grass or dirt. They make surprisingly open and accessible nests by making a shallow scrape in the dirt, sometimes lined with a few rocks.  Their eggs are very inconspicuous and look just like stones.

All throughout the day we are likely to hear their distinctive, high-pitched calls, see them flying around our tractors or watch them running between crop rows and through the roughly plowed furrows. I have seen them on a couple of occasions do their famous broken-wing walk, meant to lure predators away from a nest or chicks by simulating an easy meal.

Unfortunately, we are not in a position to just stop what we’re doing and make sure that we don’t disturb their nesting sites. In fact, I am sure that we have, without even noticing, destroyed several nests already as we prepare the fields for planting. It gets me wondering how they make out at all, but they are not a particularly uncommon bird; there are of course many grassy fields and patches of dirt out there that are not intensively farmed. And my guess is that they probably sneak a successful nest or two through on our fields, also. I feel for them, though I also enjoy watching them wing about as I go about my day. I think if I had my own farm I would try and have some enticing corner of my fields that I plowed once or twice a season and keep free of shrubs and tree seedlings but would avoid planting, and hope that a pair of killdeers would make good use of it. How I would get the birds to nest there and not elsewhere is an entirely different story, of course.

Friday, May 08, 2009

An unkempt sort of Eden

I have kind of a favorite place in the farm right now. The larger of our two growing areas, called Patch field, has a field that was not plowed and planted with a cover crop last fall. For some reason they let the field go past the date when you can reliably plant winter rye and so it was just left to do whatever it would do. This is not ideal from a farming perspective, as a cover crop keeps the soil stable and enriches it (most cover crops are nitrogen-fixing plants that contribute nitrogen back to the soil) when it is plowed back into the ground. These are often called ‘green manures’. Without the cover crop the soil is left relatively exposed to runoff and erosion and there is little replenishment that happens during the off-season.

What happened in this field, field 3 as we call it, is that an unruly jungle of crop plants and weeds has grown up in it. The last planting of 2008 spinach survived the winter and started pushing up new leaves in early spring, which we have been eating almost daily. It is unusually thick, fleshy and sweet, and it is delicious. I don’t know enough about some of the other plants to know whether they have reseeded themselves or whether the plants from last year have simply survived, in their roots or basal leaves, to send up new growth. There is arugula, which has already bolted with flower heads two feet high but is still tasty, spicy and just a little bitter. There is red Russian kale, a beautiful plant of pale green leaves and light red veins. Not my favorite green in the world, but I have been enjoying it both raw in salads and cooked with scrambled eggs. There are parsnips, roots that were never harvested last fall but have frozen and thawed repeated over the winter but seem still crisp and smell earthy and sweet. I have not tried them yet, but I took a few today to maybe try sometime this weekend. There are several species of weedy wildflowers, including the always bold goldenrod and an unknown member of the mint family with ruby and purple flowers. Best of all, there is garlic coming up, now in its young, ‘green’ phase, with a relatively delicate flavor just barely reminiscent of garlic but full of mild, oniony goodness. I made a sort of alfredo pasta tonight, sautéing minced green garlic and the corner of a habanero pepper in butter and tossing that with grated parmigiano and tagliatelle. A dusting of black pepper made it very tasty indeed.

Some of these semi-wild remnants from last season are still present in rows, easily discernible amidst weedy wilderness, and some, like the garlic, just seem to be spread about more or less at random. This is also the favorite field, as far as I can tell, of the savannah sparrows, who especially like to forage on the ground amidst the spinach and fly to a little patch of small trees next to an old house foundation whenever I flush them up.

I love these kind of places, wild, but with a human story in there too, and even a sort of glimpse of the future, of abandonment and the slow (or quick) re-establishment of unobstructed wilderness into the human habitat.

Peace to all, and enjoy your weekend.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009


There seem to be many different kinds of weeding that we do on the farm.  All of them, of course, have the same general objective, which is to remove unwanted plants from the crop beds.  Weeds compete for pretty much all of the resources that the crops need, and keeping them under control is absolutely essential for a successful harvest.  

The first kind of weeding I did was with a tractor that churned up the soil between the rows of young plants, dislodging weeds and exposing their roots and bringing weed seeds up to the surface where they are less likely to germinate.  We started a large, early round of hand weeding yesterday, removing weeds from the actual rows of crop plants.  This is an enormous task!  We have I don't know how many beds of crops, but a lot (60 so far?  Maybe  triple that by the time we're finished planting? These are wild guesses) and it can take a group of 5 of us a couple hours to do a single bed, depending on the crop and the degree of weeding needed (and whether we're thinning as we go along as well).  But hopefully, this monumental task would really get us set well for the rest of the crop plant's life; if we can get rid of all the weeds now, the desirable plants will have a big head start and will be able to shade out the weeds later on.  But there will always be spot weeding throughout the season and I'm sure many times where the weeds in a bed start to overtake the crops again, requiring another big effort.  Last summer when I visited the farm I helped out for a couple hours weeding the green beans; the beans were sizable by that time and getting close to harvesting but the weeds were often just as tall if not taller and would threaten to pull the beans out as you tried to get their roots out of the ground.  Tricky!

One of the interesting things is that many of these weed species are edible.  One of our most common weeds is lamb's quarters which is a tender green when young.  Another one, pigweed, is a type of wild amaranth related to types used commercially for cereal and greens.  For that matter, we were thinning out the beets today, and beet greens are certainly edible, and I thought that maybe there are some fancy restaurants out there interested in young 'micro' beet greens.  I meant to take some home but, well, I didn't (I did make a simple pasta yesterday with some wild dandelion greens).  

I'd like to find a good guide to identifying weeds, and learn a bit more about the things I'm uprooting and throwing away every day.  

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Learning from Mistakes

Yesterday I made a middling mistake; my first goof-up (I think...) beyond very small, insignificant screw-ups with repetitive tasks. I was sent out to do some cultivation (between-crop-row weeding) with the G tractor, and topped it off with a bit of gas first. The cultivation went fine, and I got maybe 6 beds of peas done before the tractor died. I thought that somehow I had misjudged the fuel level and had run out of gas. I opened the cap and gas sprayed out, making me wonder why it had become pressurized. There still seemed to be plenty of gas in there.

I couldn’t get it to start again, and did some hand weeding while I gave it a rest, but it still wouldn’t start 20 minutes later. Finally I grabbed my boss, and to my embarrassment, when he checked the fuel level he lifted up a different cap than I had used. I had topped off the coolant reservoir with gasoline, and had of course just run out of gas. I was surprised (but happy) that the tractor had run so well (and had not exploded) after my mistake.

Today I set about fixing it, and learned a bit more about the tractor in the meantime. I must admit, some good learning often comes from our errors. I read about the radiator system in the tractor manual, located the coolant drain and drained the coolant/gas mixture and flushed it out with water, then refilled it with coolant. Not a big deal, but it felt good to fix my own mistake without wasting too much of other people’s time.

Today we had our first kind of miserable task in miserable weather. It was chilly, windy and rainy and we set about thinning and weeding a long, long, long bed of beets. These beets are sowed directly into rows with a tractor, and are sowed heavily to ensure that enough germinate. Well, plenty did germinate, and we had to thin out pretty much a constant line of plants to one plant or so every one and a half to two inches. This entailed removing about, maybe, ¾’s of the beet plants, along with an equal number of tiny (and sometimes not so tiny) weeds. Both the weeds and excess beets would gobble up resources and prevent the beets from attaining a good size, so this is an essential task, and one that can’t be done by the tractor as this weeding is done actually within the rows rather than between them. It is actually kind of delicate work, and of course requires one to be on their knees for a long time. And we have several more beds to go, and carrots to do as well, and many others…we will do a lot of weeding throughout. Lots. I really don’t mind it so far, but it’ll be bit easier once we thin the crops and they get a bit bigger.

Anyway, it was cold! I thought I had my Trustees hooded sweatshirt but I couldn’t find it when I got to the farm and I got a bit chilled, which of course can affect one’s outlook on things. But I survived, and am happy that our fields got some rain, which will save us from the chore of irrigating them over the next few days (they were getting a bit dusty).


Sunday, May 03, 2009

Save the Bumblebees!

Yesterday I was sitting in my house's big screened-in porch that overlooks the marsh.  I noticed that there was a bumblebee on the floor.  He was buzzing around a bit but wasn't really getting airborn.  While I watched, he flopped over onto his back and couldn't get back over to his belly.  I wondered if he had been stuck in there for a while and was getting weak.  

I brushed him onto a piece of paper and took him outside.  He flew off in a quick downward spiral to land on the grass just a few feet from the door.  I went over and saw that he was still struggling to move around.  So I picked him up again and moved him over to a patch of ground ivy and nudged him near to one of the beautiful little blue flowers.  He grasped the stalk with both front legs and pushed his head completely into the flower and remained that way for several minutes, moving not at all.  I think he was sucking up all of the nectar he could get.  After a while, he pulled his head out and slowly crawled around the plant to another flower and did the same thing.  I watched him do this for two more flowers and then walked off.  When I came back to the spot he was gone.  I hope he got his juices flowing again and flew off on to the rest of his business.  

I really like bumblebees.  

Friday, May 01, 2009

A Reflective Day

I had an up and down day today. I got a piece of news that the murderer of my sister, Esme, had recently confessed to two more killings, one of which can be traced to a body and for which he will probably be indicted for as well. This brought the entire experience and reality of losing my sister again to the forefront of my mind, where it remained for much of the day. Esme wanders in and out of my thoughts most days, and I usually have a little chat of sorts with her in the evening, but today she was there all day. Not an entirely bad thing; I was full of love for her today and I was feeling her love for me, but I definitely was aching with the loss of her physical presence and her voice.

The weather was a little different today as well, windy and grey with a few sputterings of rain, and this may have put me into a more somber, reflective mood, though paradoxically I was also enjoying the change as well, the cooler, gentler air and overcast skies a welcome change from the intense sun of much of the previous two weeks. The wind was nice as well, though the dry top layer of soil swirled about into my eyes, unprotected by sunglasses for almost the first time, throughout the morning,

We could use the rain, and are hoping for more than the fitful tease that we got this afternoon. Today we planted the 2nd round of lettuce seedlings and a mess of shallots, and then spent most of the rest of the day in the greenhouse seeding fennel, lettuce and other tasty things. Yesterday I did some field seeding with the G tractor of more spinach and a couple different kinds of radish. I’m excited about the radishes, as they grow quickly and I love them. My favorite salad is a biting, strong, not-very-subtle combination of salad greens, radishes, blue cheese, scallions and avocado (unnecessary but always nice in salads, and provides a bit of balance) in a tart dressing of olive oil, lime juice, salt and pepper. The radishes are crucial.

Thus ends my third week here on Appleton Farms, and luckily I’m still going strong and feeling that this is where I should be right now. Next week we’ll start to slowly move to the more intense schedule that we’ll have for much of the season, as we’ll be starting at 7 am on Monday. Only an hour more, earlier, but I have no doubt that I’ll be feeling it, and will have to make an extra effort to get up and get some nutrition in me before I head off to work.

Have a good weekend! Peace and love to everyone.