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.

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