Friday, August 28, 2009

Signs and Miracles

In the evening of my first day at Caretaker, a perfect rainbow spanned the valley as I stepped out of the house to walk down to my cabin. At the time, I took the Biblical interpretation, and inferred that it was a promise of a wonderful season, definitely one without too much precipitation. Well. I've seen about 10 perfect rainbows since, and I have now come to the conclusion that rainbows are actually a promise of lots and lots of rain. It's raining now, as I write this, as a matter of fact.

But we have a new sign on the farm, so I'm not worried. A few days ago Katie mentioned that she had seen a dove fluttering around the farm. As anyone who graduated from Sunday School can tell you, a dove brought back an olive branch to Noah, indicating that dry land was nigh. All week long, the sun has shone and the fields have flourished. My garden has been churning out eggplants; we're eating raspberries by the pint; Chloe isn't even kicking the bucket any more. Today brought the greatest miracle of all, however.

While pulling up black plastic yesterday afternoon, we noticed something red though the opaque plastic walls of the hoophouse. We closed the hoophouse 3 weeks ago in defeat, convinced that the blight had finally invaded even that safe haven. The plants were beginning to die back from disease, and the fruits lacked even the merest pink blush. In their prime, the hoophouse tomatoes had grown into a jungle, so we anticipated a huge hassle in removing the dying vines. To simplfy our task, we decided to hasten their death by roasting the tomato plants to death. We left the sidewalls down, the doors shut. We stopped running irrigation to the plants. We imagined their leaves shriveling from 145 degree heat, the blighted fruit withering even as it rotted.

Instead, we seem to have created juicy, sweet, California-style dry farmed tomatoes.

Late blight is a fungus like disease, technically classified as a "water mold." It spreads through the air, but can only really infect a plant when the leaves are wet and the temperatures are between 60 and 80 degrees. Our benign neglect prevented the introduction of cool, humid air, and the brutal daytime temperatures within stopped the blight in its tracks. Even better, the sudden stress seems to have kicked the tomatoes into high gear. When we opened the door this morning, we found plants so heavy laden with fruit that they could barely support themselves on their trellising. Sure, there are some blighted fruits and dead leaves in the hoophouse. But to haul a cart full of ripe, red slicers up the hill felt like the greatest victory of the season.

Oh and that dove? It is actually a white pigeon with an affinity for compost piles. Better than a rainbow, I say!

Because these tomatoes are such precious commodities, I can't offer recipes that utilize the normal summer abundance of tomatoes. For us, raspberries are the wonder crop this year, which has inspired me to try an unusual take on chilled berry soup. While I'm sure it seems crazy to put jalapenos in a berry soup, the peppers actually add the perfect piquancy to turn a dessert soup into something a bit more substantial.

Chilled Garden Berry Soup with Lemon Verbena
Recipe courtesy of Homegrown Pure and Simple, by Michel Nischan
Note: Lemon verbena is an unusual herb with lanceolate leaves and a heavenly lemon aroma. It is a perennial, so if you can purchase a plant and find a spot for it in your garden, you will be richly rewarded.

1 cup honey (I imagine that you could reduce this a bit, depending on the tartness of the berries)
1 cup lemon juice
2 Tablespoons grated lemon zest
1 cinnamon stick
4-5 teaspoons seeded, finely minced jalapeno (the seeds are where the real heat of hot peppers is, so do NOT include them in this recipe)
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 pints garden berries (I used raspberries, but the recipe assures me that any combination of blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, or strawberries would be delicious)
1/4 cup loosely packed lemon verbena leaves, sliced
whatever lemon verbena stems the leaves were on

In a small saucepan, combine the honey, lemon juice, lemon verbena stems, lemon zest, cinnamon, the chopped pepper, and the verbena stems. Simmer for about 5 minutes over low heat. Season with the salt, remove from the heat, and let sit for 10 minutes to cool.

Put the berries in a food processor or blender. Add the honey mixture, pouring through a fine sieve. Process until smooth.

You can sieve the soup again to remove some of the seeds, or simply stir in the sliced lemon verbena leaves and chill until serving.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

You Can Take the Girl Out of Georgia...

When I first came to Caretaker to interview, Don warned me of the brutal heat of a Berkshire summer. "There will be about a week in the 90's," he said seriously. "Only one week?" I asked incredulously, "I think I can handle that."

That week, in all of its sun-baked glory finally arrived last Friday, and I have spent every sweaty moment since in a heat-addled bliss. It is finally hot enough to swim.

Water, as I have noted, is abundant in the Berkshires (this summer in particular). Long-ago glaciers gouged ponds in the earth; streams bisect the valleys and trip mellifluously one into the next. Frankly, I'm not sure why farmers in these parts even both to establish irrigation systems. Unfortunately, most of this water is frigid, a shock to the system on all but the warmest of days. If I'm to cool off at 6 pm, when I get off work, by jumping in a swimming hole, it had better be a scorcher of a day. I've gone swimming for five days running now, and I couldn't be happier.

Of course, the ironic counterpoint to my love affair with cold water is that these hot days also send me into the kitchen to slave over a cauldron of hot water canning jams, pickles, salsas and just plain fruit. Rutabagas will only carry me so far through winter. Alas, my dreams of a pantry red with tomatoes is not to be, nor the "tomaisins" (sun dried cherry tomatoes) I had so eagerly anticipated. I'll replace them with pickled beets, dilly beans, and tomatillo salsa.

And peaches. Just as it wouldn't be summer unless I immerse myself in water, nor would the season seem complete until I have consumed and canned at least a bushel of peaches. Katie was kind enough to bring me back two bags of gargantuan Pennsylvania peaches when she returned from vacation, so I spent Tuesday night racing to can many of them before they crossed the fine line from ripe into rotten. I've improved since my first marathon cannings last year, when I managed to sully almost every pot in the house over the course of far too many hours. This year I'm avoiding the newbie mistakes: I started my canning bath water first--though after I had ensured that my pot was deep enough to hold my jars. So I skinned and I chopped and I pitted and I boiled, until the dust settled and I was left with 5 quarts of peaches in a light honey syrup just waiting for the winter doldrums to strike.

How To Can Your Own Peaches

First and foremost, set a large pot of water to boil--this will be your hot water bath. Place some sort of rack in the bottom of the pot, so that jars will not rattle against the bottom of the pot when processing.

Set a second, smaller pot to boil, and fill a small bowl with ice water. Cut a shallow "x" in the bottom of each peach, and when the second pot comes to a boil, immerse the peaches one at a time for between 30 and 60 seconds to loosen the skin. When you remove a peach from the hot water, immediately plunge it into the ice water (the goal is not to cook the peaches.) If the peaches are ripe, the skin will slide right off.

In the meantime, in a small saucepan, bring 1 quart of water and a scant 1 cup of honey or sugar to a simmer. This will be your canning syrup. The sweetness of your syrup is a matter of taste--my recipe is considered "light". Depending on how many peaches you can, and how full you pack your jars, you may need more or less syrup. I made 5 quarts of peaches with 1 batch of syrup.

Once all the peaches are peeled, cut them into halves or slices. Pack your (very clean!) jars with the peaches and pour the canning syrup over the peaches until it comes up to the bottom of the neck of the jar. Poke and prod the peaches to release any air trapped at the bottom. Screw canning lids on your jars--they should be sealed, but you don't need to really jam them down: the processing will do the real sealing.

Carefully lower the filled jars into the first and largest pot of boiling water. Water needs to cover the lids completely. Once the peaches have been processed 25 minutes in boiling water, remove them from the pot and allow them to cool on a counter. Store in a cool place for up to one year.

Thursday, August 13, 2009


I've been lax as of late, for which I apologize. In part, my sporadic posting has been the result of over stimulation: I first went on vacation to Virginia, where I visited Andrew at the now-famous Polyface Farm; then I attended the Northeast Organic Farming Association Summer Conference in Amherst, MA. Between processing 600 chickens in 4 hours, taking notes on 7 excellent workshops, and participating in a pie-eating contest, it has been a busy couple of weeks. But perhaps a larger explanation for my silence on the blogging front has been a series of challenges, which this season keeps throwing at us.

It began with out strawberries, which received rain almost from the moment they first blushed red. Not only did the lack of sun make the berries watery and less-than-optimally sweet, but it also allowed fungus to spread rapidly, killing the plants and rotting the fruit. Then, on June 1st, we suffered the latest frost in anyone's memory. We covered everything we could to protect our fragile transplants, but a strong wind in the night bared the melons to the frosty air. We lost a huge fraction of our early crop, and then the ensuing rains of June polished off the rest of the crop, other than a few hearty vines. Before that, Don had never lost a crop in 15 years of farming.

The cold and wet of June and then July brought other disasters as well. Phythophthora infestans, also known as Late Blight, traveled swiftly from Ohio to Maine, killing every tomato in its path. Eschewing dangerous sprays (even certified organic sprays can be extremely harmful if the farmer contacts them in the process of spraying), we watched as our gorgeous, luscious tomato plants swiftly rotted before our eyes, literally days before our first harvest.

The weather then perked up for a bit, and we hoped to recoup our losses and move on with life. Until a storm system dumped 5 inches of rain on us in 1 day, followed by another 2 inches two days later. (As a point of reference, the average month here recieves around 4 inches of rain). My garden all but became an aquaculture site*, and our bare summer fallow field moonlighted as a small pond. A few days later, a new disease surfaced in the peppers, and possibly in the summer squash. Plant pathologists from the extension service gave us the grim news: a different strain of Phytophthora, this one a soil borne disease which can survive in a field for years and will attack solanacious crops and cucurbits--aka everything tasty from summer.

Agriculturally, this season sucks.

Increasingly, I've come to empathize with the position of conventional farmers, the sort of folk who wrote the essay "The Omnivore's Delusion" (not to be confused with Michael Pollan's best-selling book, The Omnivore's Dilemma). But before anyone starts advertising conventional fungicides to me, allow me to reiterate my commitment to our growing practices, even in the face of (some) crop failures.

"The Omnivore's Delusion" is an important essay, I believe, one that should be read by anyone who considers him or herself an advocate of sustainable, local ag. This is not so that you can "know the enemy" and thereby outsmart them (such an antagonistic mindset only serves to repackage and recycle a long-standing and singularly vicious mistrust between city and country, conservative and liberal). No, I cite Blake Hurst's essay because it offers a long overdue reminder of the complexity of farming.

I agree with the author, that a great many people seem to revere Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma is the Word made print of the sustainable ag gospel. Pollan is a good man, and one of the most articulate advocates for me and other farmers like me. But he is not a farmer. There are a great many things he either does not know, or does not have the space to include in a book. Reading Michael Pollan no more makes you an expert on agriculture and food policy than sleeping at a Holiday Inn Express makes you a heart surgeon (despite what the commercials would lead you to believe).

It does make you a more informed consumer, and it provides a certain amount of critical vocabulary with which to then may seek out a deeper understanding.

Take late blight, for example. Hurst, hearing of the tomato blight in New England, would probably say, "for the sake of your family and the financial solvency of your farm, you should spray fungicide and save your harvest." I, on the other hand, view late blight this year as a reminder of the value of diversification and of our CSA community. Our shareholders have supported us stalwartly in this challenging season and frequently expressed the sentiment that this year, more than any other, is an example of why they joined a CSA. Not everyone can or wants to be a CSA farmer. But it is one way, just as surely as commodity corn is another way of farming (and one dependent on federal subsidy largess).

My kind of farming is not a rejection of technology, just as growing corn is not (inherently) a rejection of soil stewardship. The theme that I kept coming back to again and again as I read Hurst's piece is this: look closer. In this sense, he offers a valuable perspective.

*Though, miracle of miracles, it survived the deluge and has been thriving when all else fails. Continue sending good thoughts my way, whoever you are!