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


patterned light
patterned light
green, green

grass, patterned light

again, rain

by my face

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.