A little over three weeks ago, I planted some radish and arugula seeds in the ground. With a little more sunshine and rain, those crops will be ready to harvest in a couple of weeks. They were the final seeds put in the garden for consumption in the 2014 growing season. They were not, however, the final seeds to be planted in the garden. In October, I sowed several rounds of cover crops in the garden. These “crops” aren’t meant to be consumed this year, but they serve an equally important role in the garden. Each time I finish harvesting a given crop in the field, any remaining plant material gets mowed down, then tilled shallowly so the debris can break down and rot into the soil. Most of the microorganisms that do the work of breaking down crops live in the top couple of inches of soil, and you certainly don’t want your micro-organisms, plant debris, and loose soil to wash away now that the soil lacks plant roots to keep it in place. Enter cover crops. Cover crops, as they are aptly named, cover the spaces in your garden that have opened up once you are done harvesting. On a huge farm, whole fields may sit in cover crop while others are used for growing crops for consumption, then they are switched back and forth each season. Because my farm is only an acre, I used every available inch to grow crops this year, but I will have cover crops do their work over the winter. Cover crops will survive cold and even frigid weather, and keep soil anchored through rainstorms, wind, and snow melt. In the spring, they will recommence growing and provide luxurious greens that can be mowed and tilled in to build the soil and provide organic fertilizer for the spring edible crops. This year, I have chosen to use a mix of plants to act as my cover crops.
Clover and Austrian Winter Peas are cold hardy legumes, plants that can take nitrogen from the air and fix it into the soil where it can act as a fertilizer. These plants will vine and spread to cover the surface of the ground. In the spring, they will make beautiful blossoms that will attract pollinators to the garden, and the tender tips of the pea plants can be eaten in salads or used in stir fry. Tillage radishes and brown-seeded mustard are both in the Brassica plant family and serve different purposes. Tillage radishes make long, skinny roots which will rot away in the spring and thereby help break up soil compaction and allow air and water percolation through the soil. The brown-seeded mustard plants will make edible greens in the spring, but they will also send up large stalks that will provide vertical structure for the peas to climb. The seed from these plants can be harvested to made spicy brown mustard! Winter rye is the most cold tolerant plant in my cover crop mix, and even if we get another frigid winter this year, it will survive and grow again in the spring to provide lots of biomass that will be cut down and added back to the soil. Over the winter, its deep roots will keep the soil in place. Buckwheat is a plant that is often grown as a summer cover crop because it grows rapidly in the heat and is quite sensitive to cold and frost. I had some buckwheat seed laying around and I sowed it in with my fall cover crops. I know it will die back soon, maybe even tonight with our first freeze, but in the meantime it has grown quickly and is no doubt helping keep the soil in place. It will die off just as the cool-loving crops want more space to spread out. Finally, there are a lot of volunteer cover crops doing their work out in the garden. Some people might call these plants weeds, but I look at them as a free cover crop. Mostly I see henbit or purple dead nettle (I have a hard time telling them apart when they’re little) just starting to leaf out. These are low-growing plants that will act as nurse crops, filling in the spaces between the intentional cover crops. What I’m hoping for this winter is a lush, green carpet to cover the bare soil. In the spring, I look for the green carpet to give rise to a beautiful stand of plants with low growing vines, lots of vertical structure, and flowers aplenty. At the moment, our green cover crop carpet is well underway, and with the rain we have been receiving for the past week, it is glowing and growing before my eyes. These plants are happy to be out in the cool weather and are saying, “bring it on!” to the winter. So am I.
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.
A few weeks ago, Chris and I came home from our Sunday market, unloaded the truck, and jumped in my car to make a quick trip to Nashville to visit Chris’ sister before she moved from Nashville to Denver. Just as we were making our way through Rabbit Hash on our way to the interstate, we turned on NPR and caught the tail end of an episode of On Being, a radio show about what it means to be human. Broad subject, right? This particular episode featured Dan Barber, an award-winning chef, author, and advocate for good farming and the farm-to-table movement. I was so intrigued by what he had to say in the last 10 minutes of the show, that I decided that I should get online and listen to the full episode. Of course, it took me a few weeks before I could sit down and listen to the full 50-minute show, but I did, and I was so inspired by the conversation between Dan, the show’s host, and the audience, I thought I would share a link to the episode. Fifty minutes is the perfect amount of time to cook a meal or sit down and eat while you listen. The show covers so many important topics like the link between the flavor and nutrition of food and how it was grown, our modern disassociation with food and where our ingredients originate, the cost of eating locally, and more. I especially appreciated how often the link between ecology and food came up. As an ecologist turned farmer, I see the tight and intricate link between ecology and agriculture, but it is sometimes difficult to articulate that connection, especially when we are used to seeing our food packaged up and on display in a sterile grocery store instead of growing in the soil of a farm surrounded by a living environment. It makes perfect sense to me that if you treat the place where you grow your food well, your plants will thrive, contain more nutrients, and be more flavorful. Really great chefs understand this, and it is why the farm-to-table movement is growing.
During the show, a couple of authors were mentioned: Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver. Before I ever became a farmer or even dreamed I would be growing food for people, these two authors changed the way that I ate. I was already interested in organic food, but after I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma andIn Defense of Food by Pollan, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Kingsolver, I began to realize the importance of eating locally and seasonally. I also began to wonder where the heck my food was coming from. It was this curiosity that led me to grow some of my own food and meet local food producers. I highly recommend the three books mentioned above, plus Michael Pollan has several other non-fiction books out about food, plants, and cooking that are worth checking out. Barbara Kingsolver is one of my favorite fiction writers, perhaps because she’s from Kentucky and was at one time a biologist! I could add a long laundry list of other food and farming books that I love, but I will restrain myself and stick to the ones above, the ones that put me on the path to eating well and growing my own food.
Yesterday evening I decided it was time to harvest my patch of storage onions, so I hunkered down and spent about an hour and a half harvesting the onions and another hour and a half carefully laying them out to cure in the greenhouse. The time had long come when I needed to harvest the onions, and with an abundance of rain lately, I was worried about the onions rotting in the field and weeds completely taking over the patch, making it much more difficult to find the onions come harvest time. So with a dry afternoon on hand, I knew it was time to dig in.
This year, I planted two 150-ft beds of onions. Each bed was 4 feet wide and contained 2 or 3 rows of onions. One bed was devoted to “fresh eating” onions, as I like to call them, and the other was set aside for storage onions. The fresh eating onions were onions that I harvested with green tops. They don’t have any of the papery wrappers that you’re used to seeing when you buy a net bag of onions at the store. Instead, they are intended to be eaten fresh, no peeling necessary, and therefore, these onions won’t store long. Generally, they are varieties that are sweeter, containing more sugars, which contributes to their inability to store for a long time, but also makes them delicious raw and helps them to caramelize beautifully. In the fresh eating onion bed, I also included my summer leeks, which take fewer days to reach maturity than fall leek varieties, and are planted closer together so they remain small and slender, never getting bigger than a thumb’s width.
My storage onion bed contains five varieties of onions, all of which store well, according to my seed catalogs. Storage onions tend to be more pungent and less sugary, they make lots of layers of papery wrappers, and they can be cured then stored for months. Some storage onions can even make it through the entire winter if stored properly. The telltale sign that the onions are ready to harvest is when their green tops begin to brown and flop over. The onion is effectively curing itself by sealing off the watery sugars and starches in the bulb by creating a little pinched off crook in its neck where the tops fall over. This way, the green tops won’t transpire water out from the onion bulb.
Most of my storage onions had their tops flop over a couple weeks ago, but a few stalwart onions continued to have perky leaves. I picked all of the onions that had flopped and shriveled tops and laid them out in my greenhouse to continue drying for the next week or so. In the greenhouse, they will be protected from rain and receive plenty of heat to ensure their papery wrappers are good and dry for storage. The onions that continued to have perky green tops were all from one variety, Rossa di Milano, a beautiful Italian red onion variety. I decided that the Rossas with green tops would become subjects in my first attempt to make a braided onion rope. Braiding is another option for curing onions, especially if you don’t have a lot of horizontal space for curing. By braiding the onion tops, you effectively make that little crook-in-the-neck seal that would naturally form when the tops flop over in the field. There are lots of videos online to help you learn to braid onions, and I watched a few before diving in. Basically, you braid the onions like you would braid hair, and you include some twine in the braid to help stabilize everything and to give you a loop to hang the braid from a hook or nail. My Rossa di Milano onion braid is currently hanging from the rafters of my front porch where it will get a little breeze to help the curing process and be protected from the rain.
In seed catalogs, onions are classified as short, intermediate, or long day length onions. You must choose the right type for your spot on the earth. Farms in northerly latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere have long summer days so they should grow long day onions. Farms in southerly latitudes have shorter summer days, so short day onions are most appropriate there. Here in Northern Kentucky, I am almost at 39 degrees latitude, which is the southern edge of the long day onion zone. Most long day onions switch from growing green tops to making big bulbs once there is at least 14 hours of day length, and at my latitude that occurs after May 6 and lasts until August 5. That isn’t as large of a window for bulb formation as Maine or Washington, but it’s still three months, and my onions seem to be small to medium in size, accordingly. The problem with growing short day onions here is that they may bolt (i.e., go to seed) before forming a bulb. Overall, I am happy with the varieties I grew this year, and I will continue to try different long day onion varieties. I wish I had started my onions earlier, tended to them better when they were little baby onions in the greenhouse, and got them transplanted in the field earlier, but even so, I have a lot of onions to show for my efforts this year.
With only two days of August left, we have entered a new phase at the farm: bulk harvesting. To this point in the season, everything that we bring to the market has been picked fresh with the exception of potatoes, which we normally dig less than a week before the market, wash, dry, and let cure for 1-3 days. Today, things changed. We began harvesting our winter squash (pie pumpkins, butternut, delicata, and acorn squash), which we will now let cure before we begin bringing them to the market. Next up will be storage onions, which also need time to cure before they can come to the market. Before too long, we will have beans to pick, dry, shell, and store. Then come sweet potatoes and two varieties of potato that we still have left out in the field.
Storage vegetables all require different conditions for curing, which is the process of toughening up the skin so the vegetables aren’t susceptible to invasion by rotting organisms like mold, fungus, and bacteria. After the vegetables have cured, they want different conditions for storage so they remain in a stable condition until you’re ready to eat them. Curing and storing vegetables can be tricky, especially if you don’t have large, well-ventilated climate controlled areas, so a new farmer like me has to make the best use of the spaces that we’ve got. Winter squash, once they are picked ripe off of their vine, want to sit in a well-ventilated area that is warm (70-80 degrees F). This allows the stem of the squash to dry up and the skin to thicken, creating a nice sealed exterior impenetrable to rot organisms. If the squash isn’t nicked or bruised, it can survive a very long time, sometimes all through the winter and into the spring! I don’t have a space right now that can provide these conditions for hundreds of pounds of winter squash, so my best alternative is to put them in a greenhouse. While the greenhouse is currently hotter and not as well-ventilated as I’d like, the winter squash will at least be dry, warm, and elevated off the ground. Elevation is important for air circulation and for keeping the squash a little bit out of the way of bugs and rodents that would like to eat them.
I could have allowed my winter squash to continue sitting in the field on their vines and let them cure out in the open air. With lots of hot, wet days in the forecast, however, I didn’t want to run the risk of having my squash rot, especially because most of their vines have died back and therefore aren’t providing the life support the squash need to fight off the agents of rot. Also, as the squash sit in the field, their starches convert to sugars and they become more delectable to the palates of deer and other vermin. So, I decided that it was finally time to get the winter squash up and out of the field. Now we can cut down the forest of weeds that have grown up around the winter squash, and hopefully sow some quick growing cover crop to help return some fertility to the soil and create a dense stand of cover crop instead of a dense stand of weeds.
The squash will only need a couple of weeks to cure before I can put them in storage, which will likely be on a covered porch where they will be out of the sun and rain. There they will remain until the temperature drops below about 50 degrees. Once that happens, I will need to bring them indoors so they can remain cool, but not too cold. Ventilation is also important in the storage phase. Hopefully, I will have a lot of my winter squash sold by the time 50 degree weather comes around. Whatever is remaining will go on shelves in my house until I sell it or eat it all. And I plan on eating A LOT of squash this winter – aside from being delicious, winter squash are packed full of nutrients and may help fight seasonal affective disorder during cold and short winter days.
Once I have time and money to add more infrastructure to my farm, it would be fantastic to have dedicated curing and storage areas for my winter squash and other storage vegetables, especially because storage vegetables allow a farmer to continue to make sales well after the growing season has ended. Last year, when I worked at Local Roots Farm outside of Seattle, the farmers, Siri and Jason, purchased an insulated shipping container for storing winter squash. The container had vents on one end that could be opened or closed to help regulate the temperature and it had a dehumidifier and a fan to keep the air moving and at the right humidity. We still had some squash rot in storage, but for the most part, it allowed us to keep literally tons of squash safely stored through the fall and winter. You can read more about the shipping container here on the Local Roots Farm blog.
Picking, carrying, sorting, wiping, and moving winter squash can be a tedious task, but luckily Chris and I had many extra hands on deck today. Many thanks go to our parents, Jana, David, Sue, and Roger. With their help, we managed to not only pick the majority of the winter squash patch, but also pick all the tomatoes for market tomorrow, and we finished up before lunch and the onset of rain for the next couple of days. I’m quite glad the winter squash are spending the night dry and under cover instead of out in a warm, wet field.
While wasting time on Facebook earlier this week, I saw this photo that a farmer friend had shared:
This sign was up at the Kentucky Proud Experience at the Kentucky State Fair. Kentucky Proud is a branding program run by the Kentucky Department of Agriculture. Not only can farms in Kentucky be “Kentucky Proud,” but also value-added producers, restaurants, farmers markets, and grocery stores that support Kentucky grown or Kentucky made products. In case you are wondering, yes, Dark Wood Farm is a Kentucky Proud producer.
I have no idea how accurate the sign is, but it got me intrigued to crunch the numbers. [PLEASE LET ME KNOW IF MY MATH DOESN’T ADD UP!!] Assuming that $500 million could be generated if Kentuckians spent 10% of their food dollars on Kentucky Proud products, that means that Kentuckians spend $5 billion each year on food. With roughly 4.4 million people living in the state of Kentucky, that means that every man, woman, and child in Kentucky spends roughly $1,140 on food each year. If each person were to allocate 10% of their food dollars to Kentucky producers, that would come out to $114 per person per year, or $9.50 per person per month. I don’t know about you, but that seems like a totally do-able amount of money to spend each month supporting local farmers, producers, restaurants, and farmers markets. In fact, it seems silly that folks can’t spend more than $10 per month on local food. It certainly will make me look at old Alexander Hamilton a little differently next time he peers up at me from my wallet.
When you buy locally, not only do you support your farmer neighbors and friends, but you reduce the number of miles your food travels from the farm to your plate. That means you eat fresher, tastier food, and less fuel is burned transporting your food in the process. I’m probably preaching to the choir here because, if you are reading this, you are obviously interested in my farm and I only sell my vegetables and fruit locally. Nonetheless, I think it’s important that we always keep in mind where our food dollars are going and the people that they are supporting. I know it is difficult to buy every food item in a modern diet locally. Heck, I spend money on cooking oils, salt, pepper, spices, tea, coffee, chocolate and other things that don’t grow around here. However, when I buy these things, I try to turn to my local markets. I can get most of my spices, tea, and coffee from locally-owned small businesses, and I can talk to the owners of those businesses and ask where they source those items. I can also look at labels in the grocery store to find out if the products are organic, if they are fair trade, where the business is located, and in some cases I can find out if the product contains any GMO ingredients.
I’m not trying to get super preachy here and say that everyone should make the same food choices as me, but I would challenge you to actively make your own food choices. What is important to you and your family when it comes to food? What kinds of food do you want to eat? Who produces the kind of food you want to eat? Where does that food come from? Your food dollars make a difference for the producers of that food, and it that way, your food dollars can directly support farmers and businesses in your community. But food dollars aren’t all that matters. I once heard someone say that every dollar you spend on food is like a vote, and while I understand the logic behind that idea, it makes me feel a little squirmy. It implies that the people with the most money have the most votes, and people with less money have fewer votes. There are so many things that you can do to support local food that don’t involve “voting” with your dollars. Sure, where you spend your food dollars makes a big difference, but you can also do things like grow some of your own food, whether it’s an expansive garden or just a few containers with basil on your balcony. You can cook more meals at home using local, seasonal ingredients. You can get to know your local food producers, ask them questions about their growing practices, and support them by spreading the word about their businesses. You can volunteer to help out on a farm or a community garden in exchange for food. You can donate fresh, locally grown food to a food pantry. You can support policies in your local government that protect agricultural lands and keep them available to farmers at affordable prices. You can simply just read a book or two about food. All of these activities will make a difference in how you eat, how you think about your food, how you choose to support food producers, and thus have a ripple effect through your food system.
Here are a couple of places where you can get to know your local food producers:
Melon season arrived on the farm last week, and it seems like it will only last another week or so. It’s a flash in the pan, but a sweet and juicy flash in the pan. I have never grown melons before this year. In the Pacific Northwest, where I learned most of my farming skills, it was difficult to grow melons because they like prolonged hot weather. I’ve learned a lot of lessons about growing melons (both cantaloupe and watermelons) this year, mostly from screwing up, so I thought I would share my screw-ups with you all so you too can learn from my mistakes.
Lesson 1: Not all “cantaloupes” are technically cantaloupes
I thought any melon with orange flesh and tan, rough skin was a cantaloupe. That’s not true! Cantaloupes are a specific type of muskmelon. Other muskmelons include honeydew and Armenian cucumbers. The name refers to the fragrant odor that these melons release when ripe. Technically, the term cantaloupe refers to a specific type of muskmelon from Europe with orange flesh, but no ribs or netting. However, we have more recently accepted the term cantaloupe for all of the sweet, orange fleshed muskmelons with netting and ribs that are so popular in North America. Who knew? Not me, until I read the descriptions of muskmelons and cantaloupes in seed catalogs this winter.
Lesson 2: Bet on poor germination
I thought I’d get a leg up on getting my melon patch established, so I decided to start my melons as transplants in the greenhouse. I had heard that they don’t transplant well, but with the late frosts and freezes we were experiencing this spring, I thought it would be better to start them out in the greenhouse where it would be warm enough, then transplant them out in late May when the soil would surely be warm enough for these heat loving plants. I had flats with 32 cells, which are basically little plastic square shaped pots. On April 25, I filled them up with soil and placed a single cantaloupe or watermelon seed in each, watered them in and waited for them to grow. I always allow for 20% germination failure, knowing that some seeds are duds, so I planted 20% more seeds than I needed. When melons sprout, they have enormous cotyledons, which are the first two baby leaves that poke out of the ground, unfold, and start photosynthesizing to make the plant grow it’s first true leaf. Well, once my melons germinated, I noticed that I had barely a 50% germination rate. That meant that I wouldn’t have enough melon plants to fill out the beds where I intended to plant them. Ack! Next year, I’ll know to plant at least twice as many melon seeds, if not more.
Lesson 3: Don’t assume your melon patch will be weed free
Melons, like their cousins, squash and cucumbers, have very long vines with large leaves. These plants do a great job of spreading and making a canopy of huge leaves, under which weed seeds have a difficult time germinating. Assuming that my baby melon plants would take off and out compete the weeds, I put “weeding the melons” very low on my priority list. The result? My melon patch is the weediest spot on the farm. Name the weed, and I’ve got it in my melon patch. Every time I harvest cantaloupes and watermelons, I feel like I’m on a treasure hunt. As fun as that is, it probably takes me 5 times longer to harvest melons than it would if I could actually see them sitting on the ground.
Lesson 4: Deer love melons
My favorite variety of watermelon is a small little yellow-fleshed watermelon called Petite Yellow. They are so sweet, and just the right size for two people to eat in one sitting. Another bonus – they are almost all flesh with very thin rinds. However, their sweet aroma and thin rinds makes them prime candidates for a late night deer snack. Just before all my Petite Yellow watermelons ripened, deer wiped them all out…ate the whole things and left only a tiny bit of rind on the ground. I managed to salvage one Yellow Petite that was well hidden under my weed canopy, and a couple more have grown since the major deer attack in mid-July, thankfully. I’m saving these little jewels to eat myself!
Lesson 5: Don’t get antsy and pick melons too soon
In mid-July after the deer attack on my Petite Yellow melons, I was gripped with fear that the deer would eat all of my melons, so I decided to start harvesting them. After all, if the deer were sniffing them out, they must be ripe, right?! Wrong. I picked two Sugar Baby watermelons and cut them open. One was completely white inside and the other was barely pink. Interestingly, they were still sweet. Not as sweet as a fully ripe melon, but still very edible. I decided to wait a couple more weeks, keep my fingers crossed that the deer would leave them alone. Luckily, the deer ignored them and I started finding ripe watermelons about two weeks ago. Of course, I had to taste test them before I brought them to market, so I didn’t begin selling any until last week. I have learned a few tips for identifying ripe melons. Watermelons have a little curly tendril that grows across the vine from their stems. When this tendril dries up and turns brown, your melon is likely ready, but you still want to look for a yellowish spot where the melon sat on the ground, and listen for a hollow sound when the melon is thumped. When all three of these signs have coincided, I have found nicely ripe melons. For cantaloupe, you can sniff the melons, and a strong sweet scent indicates they are ripe, plus they will slip right off the vine with barely any pressure. I have noticed that size doesn’t indicate ripeness; I have found large under-ripe melons, and tiny fully-ripe melons. It seems that size may have more to do with how much water the plant received than ripeness. I didn’t irrigate my melons at all, and they are smaller than average, but REALLY sweet, and still juicy. I think the lack of irrigation helped to concentrate the sugars rather than making a huge, watery melon.
Lesson 6: Ripe cantaloupes don’t last long
Because I wait to pick my cantaloupes until they are super sweet, fragrant, and slip right off the vine, they have a very short shelf life. They seem to develop soft spots overnight. Although this makes them difficult to sell, I have found that they are still very good, and only need a little of the soft spots cut off. Even so, I haven’t been selling any of my cantaloupes that have bad soft spots. Instead, I have been eating them and giving them away to family and friends. In fact, I just cut up two of them and am trying out a recipe for melon sorbet. It calls for vodka. I’m not sure if that helps the sorbet reach the correct consistently, or it’s just to add a little livelihood to my dessert, but I didn’t question it, and I now have vodka-y, lemony, melon puree in my refrigerator cooling before I put it in my ice cream maker. You can try it out with watermelon too, or a mix of cantaloupe and watermelon. Cheers!
The past few weeks at the farmers market have been the busiest of the year. There are a few factors contributing to this, as far as I can tell. With cooler-than-normal temperatures this summer, folks have been out enjoying the weather and spending a little extra time at the market, especially now that it’s corn, tomato, and watermelon season. There are so many beloved summer vegetables ripe and ready right now that it is truly the best time of year to visit the market. Chris and I have spent some long days harvesting in preparation for the busy July and August markets, and every time we pack up the truck to head to the market, I am amazed that we are able to fit everything. We like to keep our booth stocked for the duration of the market, rather than run out of things early, which means we often come home with leftover vegetables. When I worked at Local Roots Farm in Seattle, leftover vegetables weren’t a problem. We had an honor system farm stand on the road where we could sell nice leftover vegetables, and anything that was wilted could go to our laying hens or pigs. Here at Dark Wood Farm, I don’t have a farm stand, and we don’t have any farm animals except for Smudge the cat, and she’s not too keen on leftover chard. So you might be wondering what we do with our leftover veggies, and the answer is – we do lots of things! Chris and I both love to cook, so in the days following a farmers market, we prioritize cooking with the items left over from market. For example, today I used up one bunch of sorrel, a bunch of chard, three onions, some leeks, a tomato, and several peppers, and that was only for one meal – lunch!
Whatever we don’t eat either gets stored, sold, donated, composted, or preserved. Here’s a little bit about each of these avenues:
Some leftover items, like potatoes, will store perfectly fine until our next market in a few days, so we hang on to those. The tricky part about holding vegetables until the next market is finding a good place to store them. Each vegetable has a preferred temperature and humidity, so you often can’t store everything in one place. Some veggies need to be refrigerated, some don’t. Most of them need to be kept out of the sun and out of the reaches of rodents or other animals looking for a feast.
Some of the higher demand items get sold to friends, family, and neighbors, especially the ones that live along the road between the market and the farm. From time to time, the Rabbit Hash General Store, just 3 miles down the road, will sell some of my nice leftover goods. We also donate lots of greens and other perishable items to a food pantry run by CAIN – Churches Active in Northside. They pick up the veggies right at the end of our Wednesday market in Northside, then stock their pantry for guests on Thursday morning.
Surprisingly, when all is said and done, we have very little vegetable matter leftover to compost. I started two compost bins when I moved onto the farm in January. They are simply cylinders of wire mesh with a few support poles. They are each three feet tall and a foot and a half wide. I dump vegetable scraps inside the cylinder and then top it with a handful or two of carbonaceous or “brown” material like dry leaves. Lately, I have been using some of the chaff I winnowed off of my mustard crop mixed with some cocoa bean husks that I picked up from the new chocolate shop at Findlay Market, Maverick Chocolate. These dry materials help balance out the wet, nitrogenous food and veggie scraps and keep the compost smelling pleasant. I’m 8 months in, and the first cylinder is only about 60% full! As all the microbes and insects quickly work their way through the compost during the heat of the summer, the volume compresses, even though Chris and I are adding a couple bowls of fresh material every day.
For me, the most exciting aspect of market leftovers at the moment is the opportunity it provides to squirrel food away for the winter. This past winter, when I first moved onto the farm, my pantry was bare except for a few winter squash, shallots, garlic, and root vegetables that I stowed away in little nooks and crannies of my car when I left Local Roots and moved home to Kentucky. Luckily, I quickly befriended some local farmers including Barry at Red Sunflower Farm, and he was kind enough to share some frozen beans, squash, and canned tomatoes to help me get through the winter until the first asparagus and rhubarb peeked through this spring. Now that my farm is in full abundance, I intend on stocking my pantry for the winter so that I can eat some healthy farm foods even when the ground is frozen. A couple weeks ago, I wrote about drying herbs and saving mustard seed, and I mentioned how I had been putting off canning because of how hot it makes the kitchen. Now that tomato season is here, I’ve had to suck it up and deal with the heat in the kitchen. At the end of each market, I normally have some dented and bruised tomatoes that didn’t survive the truck ride to the market, so they have been going into the canning pot then onto my shelf for making chili and tomato-y beans and greens this winter.
I am growing a small Italian heirloom tomato called Principe Borghese, which no one seems to want to buy. I decided to try growing it when I read in the seed catalog, “used for sun-dried tomatoes as it has few seeds and little juice.” Sun-dried tomatoes! YES! I love sun-dried tomatoes, so I was sure that several of my market customers would be excited about a tomato that is exceptional for drying. Well, my instincts perhaps were wrong, because I normally bring home 75% of the Principe Borghese tomatoes that I pick. I’m not worried about it, though, because it takes me about 10 minutes to cut up the leftover Principe tomatoes and put them in the dehydrator, then in 48 hours I have a jar full of aromatic sun-dried tomatoes.
My latest experiment in food preservation is homemade hot sauce. I am bringing two types of hot peppers to the market currently: green jalapenos and fish peppers. They have been selling so-so, and after Wednesday’s market, I had a pint of each that no one bought so I decided to try making green hot sauce. Following this recipe online, I chopped the peppers in my food processor with some salt, then transferred the hot pepper puree to a jar to ferment overnight. The next day, I added vinegar, and I am currently letting it sit for a week to develop flavors before I will sieve out the pepper chunks and put the liquid hot sauce into a bottle.
Instead of looking at my leftover market vegetables as a burden, I choose to look at them as a challenge. How can I find more outlets for my vegetables, how can I improve my composting system, which new recipes can I explore, and how can I preserve these vegetables so I have food from my own farm when fresh vegetables are out of season? I am learning so much from these challenges, and setting myself up to have a winter with fewer trips to the grocery store, so I am thankful for the overabundance.