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'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.  

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Reggie Weeder

I think I’ve found one of my least favorite jobs on the farm. I’ve done it twice now, last Thursday and this morning. It’s a tractor implement we call the ‘reggie’ weeder, which is some kind of contraction of its model name (which I’m not sure of). It’s an interesting device: behind the tractor is a seat and two handles connected to two rotating circles with semi-flexible thin metal tines coming down off of them. These tines spin and are lowered into the soil, and can be moved to the left and right with the handles. One person drives the tractor, which moves slowly up a crop bed and the person sitting on the seat operates the handles to move the rotating tines around and dislodge or tear up most of the weeds in the soil, keeping the tines away from the crops but as close as is reasonable to get the most mileage out of the operation. I find some of these contraptions and techniques hard to describe clearly, so I apologize if you have no idea what I’m talking about.

Anyway, there are several difficulties. One, the operator of the weeding apparatus has the best view of how things are going, but has no direct control over the steering of the tractor or the raising and lowering of the tines. This wouldn’t be a huge deal except that the tractor has to stay in very specific, pretty tight orbit with the line of crops; too far to the left and you can’t move the left-most weeder away from the crops, too far to the right and the left wheel of the apparatus runs over the crops. I think there’s about 10-12 inches of room, while the row of crops usually swerves around a bit. Which leads us to another problem, which is that the driver of the tractor can watch the line of crops a few feet ahead of the tractor, but not easily behind him, so the adjustments he makes are difficult to calibrate perfectly to the exact place that the weeder actually is at any given moment. He can look behind him and see how far the left wheel is from the crops, but it can be a bit disorienting. And problem number three, which is all steering adjustments have to be made very delicately and slowly, and are best done by anticipation if possible. If the tractor is turned to the right, the first thing that happens is the weeder is thrust to the left, making things worse for a little bit before they get better. And you better make your counter-adjustment back to the left ahead of schedule or you’ll find yourself running over your desirable plants.

It’s tricky! Generally, the person on the weeder will shout up to the driver things like ‘lower’ or ‘higher’ or ‘left’ or ‘right’ or ‘right! Right! More to the right!” or ‘stop! Stop!’ I find that if the person on the weeder is calling out too much something is going wrong. The driver should be lined up nicely and paying attention and anticipating most problems, but I think it takes practice. I started out as the weeder last week but quickly switched to driving the tractor, and while I don’t think I’ve done too much damage I know we’ve taken out a few plants here and there. I think I’m getting a bit better but the process still feels far from natural, and in particular getting properly lined up at the beginning of a row is difficult.

I wish that the implement was designed so that the operator of the weeder could both raise it up himself quickly and/or have enough room to move it enough left or right so that if the tractor gets off course he could get it out of the way of any desirable plants instantaneously, instead of having to communicate everything to the driver, who often cannot physically steer the tractor in a way to avoid wreaking havoc on a few feet of plants. So far I have just done this on the 1st year strawberries (which we will not harvest until next season), so even taking out a few plants is not the end of the world. These strawberries will send runners out through the soil over time and then will send up many more stalks next spring, filling in a lot of empty spots. Still, it would be better not to take out too many of them! I’m a little anxious about using this at some point (and I’m sure it will come) on some annual plants like broccoli that have been recently planted.

This job, done reasonably well, would save a lot of time weeding by hand or by hoe, and I’d like to get better at it, but right now I think if I have my own farm one day I’ll take a pass on buying this particular implement. I think I’d rather spend a few extra hours with a hoe, and that’s saying a lot when I’m working 55 hour weeks. Of course, I’m not sure exactly what size farm the reggie weeder would start to make sense at, but I think it would be upwards of 10-12 acres (we farm 25 acres of vegetables).

Monday, June 08, 2009


Our shareholders arrived today for their first pickup. Actually, we have over 500 shareholders, and so the pickup days are staggered so that we don’t get overwhelmed (or run out of food) on any one day. It was busy! They started arriving in the early afternoon, often with children in tow. I was out in the fields seeding soybeans, greenbeans, sunflowers, lettuce mix and arugula so I didn’t interact with them too much, but our 'pick your own' fields were full of mothers and children (and a few others) ransacking the strawberries and the sugar snap peas. There’s plenty to go around, though. I think, being somewhat inexperienced at all of this, I tend to get a little anxious about running out of food watching all these people fill their bags up with greens and pack their pint containers full of strawberries. Really, though, we’ve planned very consistently for a considerable amount of extra for most crops, at least for while they are in season. The crop beds are very long, and most people never even get close to the far end of them while picking. So there should be plenty of strawberries left for me.

We spent the morning harvesting a bunch of vegetable, many of them for the first time. We grabbed more of the easter egg radishes, salad turnips, spinach, bok choy, arugula, braising mix (greens), red Russian kale and heads of lettuce. This will be the bulk of our mornings for the foreseeable future, I think, though of course we still have plenty of transplanting, greenhouse work, seeding, plowing, mulching and, of course, weeding, but we'll have to get a lot of that done in the afternoons now.

In the afternoon I was seeding with Theresa, and things were a bit difficult, largely due to things beyond our control, but also due a bit to some less than stellar preparation and a couple of minor mistakes. First off, the tractor wouldn’t start, so we went to get a charger and got it started. Next, we ran out of the soybean variety (and edamame type) we were seeding about a third of the way down the bed, and had to waste time running back up to get another variety. Same thing happened with the green beans we seeded; the packages we had just wouldn’t fill an entire bed, so we had to stop and fill up the rest of the beds with the standard variety that we had plenty of. So maybe not quite as much of the 'royal burgundy' bean as we would like, but we’ll probably have plenty anyway. Then, trying to get the tractor back up after a short hiatus, it wouldn’t start up again. We probably just should have kept it running while we did the switchouts for the seeds and seeding plates, but it’s so obnoxious. I wonder, though, if the battery is nearing its end; it really should have gotten a pretty good charge. Anyway, we went back up to the barn to get the battery out of the other G tractor and put it in the seeding G we were using. Back in business, until a metal implement that makes the furrow ahead of dropping the seed broke in two, so…back up to the barn to get another replacement part. Finally, I mistakenly set the plate hole much too large for the lettuce we were seeding, and it pretty much poured out in a thick stream until I noticed the problem and set it straight. I felt like we were the bad news bears or something.

I think in farming (and many other jobs or activities that deal with a wide variety of circumstances and pieces of equipment) you just have to expect days like this. A little aggravating to be sure, but it was nice to see all the families sporting about and enjoying all the food that we have worked very hard to get going for them. And it doesn’t hurt that at the end of the day I was able to wander through the shareroom and grab a beautiful head of lettuce, some radishes and some spicy greens to round out my dinner.


Saturday, June 06, 2009

Another Garageband experiment

I've attached another link to a file of something I recorded on Garageband. This one's of a song called "I Can't Leave Her Behind" by Bob Dylan. It's become something of a meditation for me, for thinking of my sister Esme. I think it's a stunning song, and I learned it from a version in the movie "I'm Not There" featuring Steve Malkmus and Lee Ranaldo, which I highly recommend. The whole soundtrack (2 cd's) is very good, but this is my favorite.

Here's the link:


Thursday, June 04, 2009

More tasty foods

I’m going to try and not gloat too much in my experience of the incredibly fresh and delicious food we get out of this farm, but it will be hard. Especially right now, as we’re just starting to see a bunch of things come into their own, ready for harvesting and eating. I’ll certainly be curious over the course of the season to see how certain foods really shine when eaten perfectly fresh, right out of the ground even, compared to how they usually taste after some time spent being trucked here and there and then laying in a bin at the supermarket. Of course, some foods keep very well and if you have a good quality source there shouldn’t really be any difference. And of course the subjective psychological difference of having helped to grow it can’t be ignored either.

But so far the food I’ve tried is pretty tasty. Today we pulled out a few of the ‘easter egg’ radishes that had grown to their full size and munched on them right there in field five, marveling in how sweet and rich and spicy (very spicy!) they were, and in their playful array of colors. Likewise, the arugula was delicious, pungent and full-flavored without being overwhelming (which it sometimes is for me). The strawberries I’ve already mentioned, and these have become a daily ritual at our snack time mid-morning. Touring the greens field this morning, the mustard greens were very tasty, as was the broccoli raab (which we won’t harvest for a while, until they start growing their little flower heads). Yesterday at lunch Eric made an unusual salad of bok choi, strawberries and toasted almonds, which I enjoyed quite a bit.

I suppose that soon enough I’ll be eating enough of this stuff every day that I won’t feel the need to write about every new taste experience, but right now this is very exciting for me. Next week we’ll also be harvesting something referred to as ‘salad turnips’, which I am told are delicious. I haven’t been converted to turnips yet, but I’m assured these are special, and quite different.

Anyway, I hope that all of you are getting some good, tasty and healthy food in you as well. Peace and love to everybody.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Here Come the Strawberries

Our shareholders start arriving next Monday to pick up their first weekly share of vegetables and fruits grown on Appleton Farms, and things are really starting to heat up. Anticipation is to the forefront of my farm mind now, as a quick walk about our fields will yield many things that look pretty much ready to eat. We have a couple beds of beautiful bok choy, looking big and bountiful. I snagged a healthy piece of leaf to munch on, and it was fleshy and moist, mildly flavored of the color green with a bit of bitterness. A small, narrow red radish was sharp and spicy. Our lettuce is almost too beautiful to bear, but I haven’t taken the plunge yet (though I did some considerable munching last week on tiny lettuce seedlings as I was thinning out a tray in the greenhouse). I’ve already mentioned our ongoing affair with spinach.

But the most exciting thing right now is the strawberries. A couple of our beds are simply loaded, drooping on all sides with plump berries. Many of them are starting to color, blushing pink. I saw a few today that had a full rosy face looking upward, but the undersides were still mostly yellowish or white. I pulled a couple off to try, expecting them to still be firm and sour, and was stunned to find them delicious, sweet and soft, better than any supermarket strawberry that I’ve had in years. I almost can’t imagine how tasty they will be once they become fully ripe, which at least a handful should be within a couple days. I think in two weeks you’ll be able to just pick a spot, sit down, and eat to your heart’s content without moving an inch.

I think it might finally be time to splurge on an ice cream maker. Nothing beats fresh strawberry ice cream.