Tuesday, May 6, 2008

A Prelude to Tomatoes in Several Movements

What do farmers do all day? This seems to be a particular question among the uninitiated (ie: those who don’t talk to plants). This question always leaves me at a bit of a loss—I don’t have a pat answer like “I milk the cows” or “I mill the grain.” On a fruit and veg farm like Serenbe, farmers are the original jacks of all trades and our daily work varies depending on everything from the season to the most recent rainfall. Last Thursday, however, was a red letter day for us: we planted out our tomatoes.

We’ve been babying these particular tomato plants for several months now. They’ve grown from fragile shoots delicately testing the air to bushy transplants with furry stems and frond-like leaves. In total, we’re growing approximately 40 different varieties with names that run the spectrum from the evocative (Green Zebra) to the colorful (Cherokee Purple), from the techy (X3R Red Knight), to the positively mouth-watering (Big Beef).

The steps from farm to table, however, begin long before we harvest the first juicy red fruit. Two weeks ago, our tomato fields were waist high in cover crops of vetch, clover, and rye grass. We keep our fields cycling through a rotation of cover crop and vegetable production, both so that the soil is never left bare (which would cause erosion and a general leaching of nutrients from the soil) and so that the cover crops can fix nitrogen back in the soil once our veggies have removed it.
We began by mowing the fields in bed-wide swaths and left our cover crops as a mulch on the soil. About a week later, we attached the tiller to our tractor and ran over the field again, this time incorporating the cover crop into the soil and facilitating faster decomposition. Again, we let the field sit for about a week. Finally, the cover crops died down to the point where we were ready to plant.

As a final prep before planting, we use an attachment called a spader, which looks like it could have been invented by Dr. Suess. The spader resembles a box on skis, which contains 8 spades (oversized trowels, really) attached to a system of pistons. Running behind the tractor, the spader fluffs up our beds and breaks up clots without destroying the soil profile. After a good spading, our hard, red soil magically becomes brown and velvety. We then pull our 45 lb row marker (not to be confused with the markers, aka tags, that we use to indicate the beginning of a new variety, or the marker, aka pen, with which we write on the markers. As you can imagine, we are often a bit confused ourselves…) over the bed to establish a grid for planting evenly.

We prep our plants for transplanting by watering them thoroughly—they come out of the cells much easier when wet, and we don’t want to shock them in their new home by transplanting them dry. One person lays out the tomato plants in 1’ or 1.5’ intervals down the center of our bed, while the following farmer quickly sets them in the soil and firms the ground for good soil-to-root contact. The third person follows with a bucket of compost, ringing each plant with a small berm of the rich, black super-dirt. ** As a side note: compost is NOT poop. Once upon a time it may have been, but it has been processed by bacteria until it becomes ultra-nutrient-rich soil. Compost does not smell like anything other than fertile soil. I feel the need to clarify this point as everyone from my friends to my father has mistakenly assumed that I am regularly up to my elbows in manure. ** Tomatoes are notorious for catching diseases from the soil, so we hope that by keeping any low-lying leaves on semi-sterile compost, rather than dirt, we can save our plants from STDs (sucky tomato diseases).

Lest the weight of their fruit send them toppling into the dirt, our tomatoes require trellising on which to drape themselves. As our next step we pounded about 200 7.5’ conduit posts into our bed. We’ll eventually string them with wires, but as our plants are still wee young things we put that off for another day. We ran drip tape—our irrigation fallback when Mother Nature serves up a drought—down the center of the bed, weaving it in and out of the posts so that it lay immediately adjacent to our plants. Then we mulched. Covering the bed with a thick layer of straw will hopefully keep weeds low and soil moisture high. Finally, we hooked up our drip tape to the main irrigation line, checked for holes or leaks, and turned it on to water in the plants. Transplants must be watered in (either by rain or drip tape) within 12 or so hours of planting.

Of course, that wasn’t all that we did. Planting 700 fragrant tomato seedlings only consumed the better part of the day after lunch. Prior to that we seeded 500 bed feet of peas, watered in yesterday’s transplants of celeriac, fennel, and assorted herbs, and spaded several beds in anticipation of the afternoon’s tomato blitz.

Our work varies from day to day, but one thing remains constant: the indescribable refreshment of my end-of-the-day beer.

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