It’s fall, folks. Leaves are falling, there’s a chill in the air, and we’re caught each day in the balance between golden rays of sun and cloudy, drizzly skies. We have had several stunning sunsets at the farm lately, featuring half stormy, half sunny skies. Each day, that sunset comes a little bit later and I’m reminded that winter will be here before too long and all my precious fresh vegetables will be dead or hibernating under a blanket of snow.
With the time we have left, I have been gathering together food and squirreling it away for winter. My most squirrel-like project, literally, has been gathering walnuts that have fallen from the black walnut trees on the farm. Each walnut is covered in a very tenacious husk that you must peel away before you get to the equally impenetrable nutshell concealed within. A little over a week ago, I picked up a bushel of fallen walnuts and brought them into the house where I sat atop a layer of towels and pulled the husks off with gloved hands. Walnut husks will dye your hands black, and even with my gloves on, I managed to blacken my thumbs and forefingers, and they are STILL black over a week later.
It is impossible to remove every little bit of fleshy husk from the walnut shells, so after I had husked them, my dad brought his pressure washer down to the farm and we blasted them with high pressure water. Now they are sitting on my porch (protected from squirrels) drying and curing for a couple of weeks before I crack the shells to extract the nut meat from inside. Apparently, black walnuts have the hardest shells of any walnut species and will destroy a regular nutcracker, so you have to crack them with a hammer on a hard surface. I look forward to the challenge!
Back in mid-July, I gathered a couple dozen green walnuts from the trees for another project. At that time of the year, the walnuts were still green and hadn’t yet formed a hard shell inside. You can cut right through them with a regular kitchen knife and a little bit of forearm oomph. I cut the green walnuts in quarters, stuffed them in mason jars, and poured vodka over them. My aim was to make Nocino, a bitter liqueur favored in Italy, which can be used for medicinal purposes. And drinky treats too, of course. The green walnuts must steep in high grain alcohol or vodka for at least a few months before it is consumed. Back in July, I figured I’d give the nocino a good 6 months before I break it open. That way, when it’s freezing cold in December or January, I’ll have my own homemade walnut tonic to keep me warm. It’s just another bit of farm-y summer goodness put away in jars for the winter.
It’s October. I just stopped at a restaurant with a chalkboard menu adorned with fake cobwebs and spiders. Folks are taking cornstalks from the field and bundling them up on their porches to adorn their doorways. Everywhere I look there are big orange pumpkins waiting to be carved into jack-o-lanterns. When I was a kid, I loved carving pumpkins as much as anyone, but now that I’m a farmer, sometimes I look at those huge pumpkins and wonder, “Is bigger really better?” I’m not trying to be the grinch that stole Halloween, but I think about growing vegetables ALL THE TIME, and because jack-o-lanterns are vegetables, I contemplate the cost of growing these huge veggies. I’m not talking the dollars and cents it takes to grow mammoth-sized pumpkins, I’m talking about the cost to the fertility of the garden.
Pumpkins are squash, and they belong to the family Cucurbitaceae along with cucumbers, melons, gourds, and zucchini. All of the cucurbits require a lot of room to grow because they have sprawling vines, and they are heavy feeders, meaning they require soil that is rich in many nutrients. You can think of them as plants with big appetites. Oftentimes, fertilizers, either synthetic or organic, are used to provide extra nutrients for pumpkins and their squash relatives. Most fertilizers include the three big plant nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Nitrogen, in particular, promotes rapid growth of plants, which is why plants grow so quickly after the application of nitrogen-heavy fertilizers. Along with big appetites, pumpkins get thirsty, and to grow a prize-winning big pumpkin, you need a lot of water. One source I found quoted 89-134 gallons per day for a 1000 square foot garden. This is especially important if the pumpkin is growing rapidly because of the addition of extra plant nutrients, like nitrogen. So what do all these fertilizers and gallons of water give us? Well, besides an awesomely huge pumpkin to look at, a watery pumpkin. Pumpkins are 85-90% water, so a medium-sized jack-o-lantern pumpkin at 18 lbs is around 15-16 lbs of water and 2-3 pounds of fiber and nutrients. Pumpkins are a good source of beta-carotene, they have a lot of fiber, the seeds are high in zinc, which is great for your immune system, and they contain a lot of vitamins and trace minerals. If you eat your pumpkin, you absorb many of those nutrients in your body, and a short time later, the fiber and metabolites go elsewhere (that’s the polite way of saying that they go down the toilet). If you don’t eat your pumpkin, the nutrients end up in a rotten puddle on your front porch, or maybe splattered on your sidewalk if there are marauding teenagers in your neighborhood. I would almost guarantee, though, that the nutrients don’t go back to the field where the pumpkin grew. Instead, there is now a nutrient “hole” in the garden, leaving fewer nutrients behind where the pumpkin was heavily feeding on water and soil nutrients all season long.
Before you get depressed and swear off jack-o-lanterns forever, there are some ways to grow pumpkins and keep your garden healthy instead of depleting it of nutrients. First, or last depending on how you look at it, instead of letting a jack-o-lantern go to waste at the end of the year, try composting it. A home composting system is easy to set up (you can check out my home composting system in my “After the Market” blog) and allows you to cycle the nutrients from your leftover vegetable waste back into your garden. Simply take finished compost from your pile and put it in the garden where your pumpkin was growing. Adding a nitrogen-fixing cover crop like clover, vetch, or field peas to your pumpkin patch can also help put nitrogen back in your garden by converting nitrogen from the air into nitrogen in the soil that plants can easily access. These nitrogen-fixing cover crops do this trough a symbiotic bacteria present on their roots. Amazing, right?! You can get free nitrogen for your plants from the air!
In my garden, I didn’t add extra nitrogen-rich fertilizers to my pumpkins and I didn’t irrigate them. I did give the baby pumpkin plants a little bit of compost, which helped to replace some of the nutrients removed by the previous crop taken from the garden. Otherwise, the air, sun, and rain provided everything else the pumpkins needed. Without excess nitrogen, they didn’t grow rapidly, and they didn’t put on excessive water weight as a result. Admittedly, I wasn’t trying to grow prize-winning huge pumpkins. I wasn’t even trying to grow jack-o-lanterns. Instead, I grew pie pumpkins, which are for eating even though they look pretty enough to be decorative. Pie pumpkins are smaller than jack-o-lanterns, and this year, my pie pumpkins averaged around 4 lbs each, which provides enough pumpkin flesh to make 1-2 pies. I didn’t want huge pumpkins because I didn’t have a lot of room for them in my 1-acre garden and I wanted the flavors and nutrients to be concentrated, not watered down. In my mind, it’s the best of both worlds – a vegetable that is delicious and healthy, albeit small.
If you come visit my stand at the farmers market, you may notice that some of my veggies are on the petite side. That’s because I use my “little pumpkin” philosophy all throughout the garden. My celery is small. So are my eggplants, beets, cabbages, and a bunch of other vegetables. Sometimes it’s because I grow small varieties and plant things close together so I can fit a lot of vegetables in a small space, but oftentimes it’s because I don’t use fertilizer and extra water on the plants. I believe the result is nutrient-dense and flavorful (and not watery) food. Sometimes bigger isn’t always better…sometimes good things come in small packages.
The big news on the farm this week is that we are starting a mini-CSA for the fall. Most farms with a CSA (community supported agriculture), enroll members in the winter before the growing season even begins. Members purchase a share of the harvest for the year upfront, and receive their portion of the harvest throughout the season. In this way, the shareholders help support the farm, especially by providing funds during a time of year when there are a lot of expenses on the farm (e.g., seed purchases, equipment upgrades and maintenance) but no income because there is nothing growing yet! At the same time, the farmer enters into a promise with the shareholders to provide the best of what the farm has to offer throughout the year. It is a fantastic way to build a relationship between a farmer and consumers and create a community that supports an individual farm and its farmer(s). As a shareholder, you are investing your money directly into a farm and farmer, and by doing so, you are supporting the farming practices that you want to occur on the land in your community, and subsequently the kind of food you want to eat. It is a great way to try out new vegetables and recipes, and to keep your kitchen stocked with the best produce throughout the growing season. As a farmer, growing for a CSA helps to streamline your yearly crop plan. You can plan out how many kale plants or heads of lettuce to grow to meet the needs of your CSA, and you can stagger out the crops so there’s always something new ripening each week. You can reduce the amount of time you expend on harvesting, transporting, and marketing your farm goods.
When I first moved home to Kentucky in January to start my farm, I really wanted to have a CSA. However, many seasoned and wise farmers advised me that doing a CSA in the first year is stressful. During your first year farming, you are learning about the soil on your farm, the growing conditions, the climate, the varieties of vegetables that perform well and those that don’t. You’re learning what people like to buy and eat from your farm. You’re learning which crops get hammered by pests and which thrive. All this “learning” is actually just you making mistakes and realizing what you need to do differently next year. The wise and all-knowing seasoned farmers cautioned me that it doesn’t feel good to look at your fields and realize that you don’t have enough vegetables to provide for your CSA members. Then you have to decide who gets a tiny or really awful looking head of lettuce and hope that particular CSA member doesn’t drop their share next year. So I heeded this advice and decided that the best option for selling vegetables during my freshman year of farming was to go to the farmers market. At the farmers market, I can take only the nicest vegetables from the farm and leave the ugly stuff behind to eat myself. It doesn’t matter if I have exactly 20 bunches of kale, I can bring as many bunches of kale I want! I can even come some weeks without kale if it looks horrible! This has been a fantastic way to get my feet wet this year. No matter what is happening on the farm, each week I bring the nicest, freshest vegetables and primp them up to look nice on my market table (If you’ve seen the multi-tiered burlap and wicker basket extravaganza that is our farmers market display, you know what I’m talking about). When you look at our stuff at the farmers market, you have no idea that we have a whole 150-ft bed of spinach that looks like crap back at the farm, because we don’t have to bring it to the market! You don’t get to see the 300 heads of radicchio that got eaten by deer, you only get to see the 7 nice heads of radicchio that survived. I have learned so much this year, and I am hopeful that my vegetables next year will be even better for all the mistakes I have made.
There is a drawback to selling at the farmers market, though, and I like to call it “The Bengals Effect.” To illustrate the “Bengals Effect,” let me just tell you a little story about two different Sundays at the farmers market in Cincinnati in September. On the first Sunday, the sun was out, it was dry, a few clouds in the sky. The high temperature was 79 degrees. Overall, it was the perfect kind of day to walk around and go to the farmers market. On this particular Sunday, the Bengals had a home game at 1PM, right during the farmers market. Now, if you don’t know much about the residents of Cincinnati, I will tell you that they love their Bengals. They love their Bengals just about as much as they love drinking beer and celebrating their German heritage. Well, it just so happens that Oktoberfest was also underway on this particular Sunday. So what was happening back at the farmers market? Even though it was a lovely day and our table was looking majestic, covered with colorful winter squash and beautiful leafy bunches of kale, and dozens of other fresh vegetables, no one was at the farmers market. We sold $342 worth of vegetables. The next Sunday, the weather was the same, sunny and beautiful, not too hot or humid. We had the same vegetables. We had the same set up. We sold $597 worth of vegetables. The Bengals had a bye that Sunday. Are you getting the idea here? Whatever the reason, a Bengals game, nice weather, crappy weather, a traffic jam, a big event in the city, it is very difficult to predict how many vegetables you will sell at any given market. No matter what, Chris and I go out and spend hours harvesting for the market and some days we come home from the market with armloads of vegetables, and others we come home with no vegetables and a nice wad of dollars in our pockets. On the bad days, you feel like you wasted a lot of time harvesting vegetables for the market that no one bought, and on the really good days, you kick yourself for not picking more!
With a CSA, a farmer knows that she has to provide enough vegetables for, let’s say, 20 families. Then she can go out in the field and pick 20 bunches of kale, 20 heads of lettuce, 20 bunches of turnips, 20 bunches of basil, and so on. She doesn’t waste any time picking too much or too little of any crop. She takes the vegetables directly to the customers and they pick it up, even if it is rainy or the Bengals have a game! There is very little waste when farmers and customers enter into a CSA together. It is a beautiful thing, and that’s why we have decided to do a little trial CSA this fall. I have been looking over my fields this fall, seeing the abundance there, and wondering if I’ll be able to get those vegetables into the hands of people hungry for wholesome, nutritious food, and whether that depends on the Bengals’ schedule. Therefore, I have decided that with vegetables a-plenty, and the growing season almost at a close, it is time to give the CSA model a whirl. Chris and I will be delivering our first set of CSA shares this Friday, and we will do another delivery on Friday, October 17. We already have in mind what we will be putting in the shares each week, we know that those crops are thriving out there in the field, and we are excited to hand those veggies off to our CSA members. We hope that it works so well that we’ll do the CSA for the full growing season next year. We aren’t giving up on the farmers market, though. Even though sales aren’t stable through the year at the farmers market, we love being there. We love meeting new customers, seeing our regular customers, sharing recipes with people, talking to other farmers, and eating lots of delicious baked treats while drinking sweet tea (me) and lattes (Chris). We love being present at the market, getting off the farm, and talking to people who love food as much as we do.