Sunday, September 27, 2009

Farming knowledge, farming futures

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

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

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

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

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

Well, enough rambling. Peace to all.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Remembering Ellen

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

Saturday, September 12, 2009

A New Song

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

where you can download it to your computer.

Like any artist of pretension, here are the lyrics:

Her Face

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 11, 2009

Fall Is Coming to Our Farm

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 06, 2009

More Stuff about Weeds

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

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

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

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

Anyway, peace and love to all.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Summer Flowers, Summer Bugs

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