Newsletter – 26 June, 2014

This Week’s Share: Arugula, Basil, Bok choi, Dill,
Garlic Scapes, Kohlrabi, Lettuce, Radishes,
Scallions, Squash, Turnips

I was actually going to write something nice about the weather. I have no idea what came over me. Surely I know better. I had not even put anything down before the deluge arrived, sending kayakable streams coursing through our fields and sinking a fair portion of the vegetable beds behind the house in a sizable pond. I am not certain, but I may have seen a hippo surface somewhere near the celeriac.

But we really had been having praiseworthy weather up until my stupid decision to praise it. Far, far better than what we had to contend with at this time last year. We were just coming to the end of a crushingly long rainy period that had kept our ground more or less saturated since early May. We had abandoned many poorly drained portions of our fields and given up on cultivating anything. The pepper plants looked a little smaller and a lot sadder than when we had put them out a month earlier. And by the time, our neighbor, DJ, was able to mow our hay fields they were so seedy we could not use the bales for mulch.

The weather has not just been better than last year’s, though. It has actually been good. For us and for the crops. It started with the real winter. For the first time in several years the frost got deep in the ground, which helps to loosen the soil, and the bitter cold helped to diminish pest populations and disease pressure (and the peach crop too, but you don’t get anything from the weather without some cost). Winter stuck around perhaps a little longer than necessary. We got our latest start ever on field work. But not so late that it actually mattered. Crops don’t really grown in upstate New York until some time in May, not even in the field houses. An early spring lets us put things in the ground, but usually they just sit there, huddled up, waiting for more sunlight and warmer nights. And every time we have had a warm, dry April, we have had a cold, wet May, which sets back everything. It does not really help to get the plowing done by the middle of April when it snows three straight days in late May, as it did in 2001. An extreme example, perhaps, but effectively not that far off from what we have contended with many years.

This year spring actually progressed in an orderly, and mercifully dry fashion, and we have squash a week earlier than normal. I won’t claim that the weather necessarily deserves the credit (or blame, depending on how you feel about squash) for that. The healthy greenhouse-grown transplants, raised beds, biodegradable mulch, hoops, row covers and fish emulsion-laced transplanting solution we deployed may have had something to do with it too. But we have been using all those things to grow squash for some years. Perhaps I have learned to use them more effectively, honed my timing, found better varieties, bought better equipment. I doubt I have improved enough to make a week’s difference. As always in farming, the weather is almost certainly the crucial variable.

That is just the nature of the farming experiment. We do everything we can to create a controlled environment in which to grow our crops. Hence the raise bed and row covers, the field houses and drip tape, the chisel plowing and weeding, the compost and drain tile, the straight rows and crop rotation, the fertilizer (composted chicken manure) and cultivating, the trellising and variety selection, the deer fence and flame weeding, the rototilling and hoeing, the hay mulch and fish emulsion, the bug netting and hand weeding, plus the weeding, of course.

We sustainable farmers get a lot of credit for being natural. That is merited up to a point. There’s a field of Roundup-ready corn across the road that is more like an industrial production facility than any of my land. But we grew eight of the crops in this week’s share in steel-framed, plastic-covered structures with drip tape and micro sprinkler irrigation. Yes, we used organic potting soil for the seedlings, and tons of compost in the soil, and super fine meshing netting to keep the flea beetles at bay, and pulled the weeds by hand. But there’ s still plenty of engineering involved, from the commercially bred varieties to the careful spacing in the rows. I don’t know that that counts as natural (natural, anyway, in the sense of not manmade, an odd but common distinction).

Were I truly natural I would probably just forage, and hand out, somehow, little piles of found objects. There’s plenty out there to eat, as my worker, Sean, keeps showing me. He has harvested ramps and chickweed and locust flowers and cattail pollen and lamb’s quarters and even some nettles (supposedly the stems are tasty, if a little painfully labor intensive to prepare). I don’t doubt I could find a market for such a CSA. In Brooklyn. But until that particular strain of artisanal hipster culture takes over everywhere (which cannot happen because broad popularity kills it; what’s the point of an earnest passion for craft pickling if everyone shares it?) I will stick with growing vegetables. And to do that at all successfully I need to take some steps to shape the conditions in which in which I grow them.

And hope the weather cooperates because I cannot do much to control it, and it can do a lot to change my growing conditions. Fortunately, so far this season it has not displayed its usual inclination to mess with us just for fun. I don’t know what has put it in a good mood–certainly not anything we have done–and I am not going to ask too many questions. Far better to leave it alone and be silently grateful (you see, I have learned my lesson) and get on with our work. Which this year includes using a lot of round bales to mulch our crops.

Vegetable Notes: This week you just get the garlic scales, not the whole plant. We are hanging onto the rest of it so that it can grow some nice bulbs to be handed out later in the season. In the meantime, you could slice the squash into sticks and sauté them with the scales, and top with chopped basil at the end. Or chop the scales finely, cooks them until tender, mix with hot pepper, soy sauce, sesame oil and vinegar and use that sauce on lightly steamed bok choi (the small, rubber banded heads of tender leaves and crisp stems). Or you could puree the scales and basil (and perhaps the arugula too) with oil, a little lemon juice, salt, pepper and a touch of hot pepper and use it as a dip for the kohlrabi and radishes. Or make a different dip by pureeing the scapes with the dill, a couple of scallions, lemon juice and thick yougurt.