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.
My friend, Morgan, had Chris and me over for dinner last night, and she put in a special request that we bring over some heirloom tomatoes. I was happy to oblige; we have plenty of them at the moment, and we are excited to share them with our friends and family. I brought over several varieties and we taste tested at least three, all of which where juicy, dense, and sweet. Morg asked, “Why do heirlooms taste so much better?” and I thought y’all might have the same question, so here’s my answer in several parts:
Let’s start by discussing just what the heck makes a tomato (or any other vegetable, for that matter), an “heirloom.” Do any of you have an old piece of jewelry or antique passed down through your family? When I turned 15, my aunt, Jennifer, gave me a little gold ring that she had received on her 15th birthday from my great grandmother, Mutzi. In turn, Mutzi had received the ring on her 15th birthday from her father. That’s an heirloom. Something that has been passed down over the years through the generations of a family. Now, let’s shift the gears and talk about heirloom vegetables. In the days before seed catalogs, folks would save seeds from the myriad vegetables they were growing for fresh eating and preserving, and plant those saved seeds in subsequent year. In fact, a family could save the seed from their best, most flavorful, most vigorous and healthy plants, and by doing that every year, improve their vegetables’ taste, texture, and production at that specific location. Let’s fast forward to what agriculture looks like today. We now live in a world where vegetable production has converted from diverse backyard gardens to large-scale monocultures, meaning vast acreages of one crop, often picked by a machine instead of by a human hand. We also live in a world where we seldom walk out the back door, pick our vegetables, and eat them immediately. Instead, we go to the grocery store and buy vegetables that were picked at an unknown date, packed, and shipped some unknown number of miles away. For a vegetable to be “successful” in today’s agricultural world, it must maximize production per acre, be easy to pick by a machine, be easily washed and packed, resist bruising during shipping, sit stably on a shelf for an untold amount of time, be uniform in color, shape, and size so it displays nicely, and last for weeks in your refrigerator’s vegetable drawer. So, instead of seed that has been saved by families for flavor, ripeness, and vigor in a specific location, we now eat vegetables from seeds that were saved for uniformity, hardness (for shipping purposes), and shelf stability. Note that I did not include “flavor” in that list. To achieve these modern goals, people have done crazy things to seeds, including inserting genetic material from other life forms into the DNA of vegetables, making them genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.
Most vegetables develop flavor as they approach ripeness. This is especially the case with tomatoes. Ever eat one of those hard, white-in-the-center, tomatoes from the grocery store in January? They have absolutely no flavor because they were picked under-ripe to keep them hard for shipping. A tomato that is allowed to ripen on the vine has time to develop sugars, which cause the tomato to be soft to the touch, juicy when cut, fragrant, and sweet. The sugars also cause the tomato to rapidly decay and soften if you don’t eat them shortly after they are picked. A soft, sugary tomato does NOT travel well, and it certainly doesn’t travel well over thousands of miles. Really, the only way to get your hands on one of these babies is to grow them and pick them yourself or to buy them from someone growing them nearby. This is where your friendly, small-scale farmer comes into play. Small-scale farmers can pick tomatoes by hand, noting which are at their peak of ripeness, handle them gently, and deliver them to a market or to your doorstep in a short amount of time. Small-scale farmers can peddle even the ugliest of tomatoes, including cracked and crazy-looking tomatoes (as heirlooms often are), because they can talk with their customer one-on-one, describe the flavor, describe their growing practices, let you smell, touch, and even taste test the vegetables. Farmers that grow for wholesale simply can’t do this.
While I do have my great grandma’s heirloom ring, I don’t have any heirloom seeds that were passed down in my family. Luckily, there are a lot of small-scale growers out there, dutifully saving seeds from old heirloom varieties and sharing them with other farmers. This year, I ordered most of my seeds from Fedco, a seed co-op based in Maine, and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, which is a network of growers that specialize in varieties that grow well in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern US. Through the hard work of these growers, many heirloom varieties live on and are available for growers like me – new farmers just getting started and in need of delicious locally-adapted varieties to grow for their friends, family, and neighbors.
I spend a lot of time sharing news about the farm and the farming process, but I haven’t been too good about sharing homesteading stories. Part of the reason I decided to become a farmer and live on my farm is because I like growing and preserving my own food. Mainly because I love to eat and eat well. When I first moved onto the farm this winter, I decided to try tapping some of the maple trees on the property to make my own maple syrup. I ended up tapping three trees and got enough syrup to keep my pancakes topped throughout the year, with a few jars of syrup to spare to give as gifts to my family. Currently, the veggies and fruit are rolling in, and it seems like I can’t find enough spare time to do all the canning I’d like. Plus, my gas stove heats the kitchen up sooo much that I’ve convinced myself I’ll do all my pickling and canning when the fall comes and I can use the extra heat in the kitchen. For now, most of the food preservation I have been doing involves drying herbs. I can deal with the heat that the dehydrator puts off, plus I’ve been passively drying a bunch of herbs by hanging them upside down from a curtain rod in the kitchen. Any extra bunches of basil, tulsi, and coriander that I bring home from the market go right up on the “drying rod” until they are crispy dry, then I strip the leaves or seeds off the bunches and store them in a dry mason jar. It makes me excited for spices and tea this winter when my garden is under lots of snow.
Earlier this week, I harvested a crop of mustard seeds from the garden. In April, I planted white mustard, Sinapis alba, which is used to make the table mustard we’re all used to eating. Your basic mustard comes from grinding down the seeds of this plant, and adding it to water, vinegar, or other liquids and spices. For example, dijon mustard typically includes white wine as one of the liquids. Additionally, the super yellow color we normally associate with mustard comes from the addition of turmeric, although I’m sure a lot of cheap store-bought mustard just uses food dyes these days. You can also use seeds from other mustard plants to make different kinds of mustard. In the past, I have grown brown mustard, Brassica juncea, and used it to make spicy brown mustard.
After the initial April planting of white mustard, the plants grew quite quickly and were in full flower by the end of May. And, boy, did the bugs love those flowers. It was a veritable bug orgy down there in the mustard patch.
Slowly, the flowers turned into green seed pods that plumped up and filled with green seeds. Then, the seed pods began to dry up, turn brown, and the seeds inside turned from green to tan/yellow. A few days ago, while the weather was dry, I decided that the majority of the mustard plants were dry enough, and that I should harvest them before they shattered, which happens when the plant gets so dry that the pods burst open and spew their seeds all over the ground.
To harvest the seed, I cut down handfuls of the plants, and shook them into a large, clean garbage can, causing the seed pods to shatter and release their seeds. This process is called threshing. It took me 2 hours to thresh 250 square feet of densely growing mustard. A mechanical harvester would be a whole lot quicker, but I don’t have a mechanical harvester, and I enjoy spending time in the garden doing repetitive work. It lets me relax, listen to the birds, and let my thoughts wander. At the end of the two hours, I had a can of mustard seeds and shattered seed pods, and I left the remains of the mustard plants, or “straw”, behind to compost back into the soil.
When I finished the threshing process, I brought my garbage can of seeds and pods to my kitchen and sifted it all through a strainer to separate out the seeds from the pods. There is still a little bit of chaff, or non-seed material, in with the seeds, so on the next low humidity day, I will take them outside with a fan and pour the seeds into a bucket in front of the fan to let the lightweight chaff blow off. All in all, I will have around 4 lbs of mustard seed, which I will use to make mustard, spice up dishes, and to make my new favorite condiment, pickled mustard seed, or “mustard caviar.” It’s a whole lot more work than buying mustard at the store, but at the end of the day, I love that my mustard will be homegrown, and the mustard patch was a huge benefit to the garden. It provided habitat for all kinds of beneficial insects during the flowering stage, its straw will help feed the soil, and because it was such a dense stand of tall plant material, it helped to keep weeds from sprouting underneath. Also, recent research has shown that growing mustard as a cover crop helps to fend off some of the pest insects and nematodes that live in the soil. All of that is wonderful, but honestly, I’m most excited about tasting my homemade mustard because, like I said, I love to eat.
This past week, while I was out of town for wedding festivities, I caught up with a bunch of old friends. They had lots of questions about my farm, so I thought that this might be a great opportunity to answer those questions for a broader audience. Let’s call it a little Dark Wood Farm FAQ.
How’s the farming going?
It’s going well! It’s a lot of hard work, it keeps me busy, and I’m not getting a lot of sleep at the moment, but I fully expect to make up some of that sleep this winter. I really like being my own boss and being outside everyday. I feel really strong and healthy, and I’m learning so much about growing vegetables through trial and error.
What’s your favorite part of farming so far?
I love cooking food that I grew myself, and I love sharing my vegetables with family and friends. Cooking is a joy for me, and using such fresh, wholesome ingredients makes a huge difference in the quality of my meals. My family and friends are trying all kinds of new veggies out my garden and eating more fresh produce than normal, which really makes me happy. I also love talking to people at the farmers market, sharing recipes, and explaining what to do with all the odd vegetables I grow.
What are you going to do this winter?
Hopefully I will get some much-needed rest and do some traveling, but I’ll probably have to pick up a holiday job to make a little extra money. I will also have lots to keep me busy: planning next year’s crops, ordering seeds, cleaning and fixing equipment, and building new gadgets and infrastructure to make farm work easier!
Are you making any money?
Talking about money is awkward, especially when you’re starting a new business, but I think it’s important to talk about it so that consumers are aware of how hard farmers work and how little they get paid. I’m sure we all wish food was free, but we live in a world where most people don’t grow their own food, so the people that do grow food need to be compensated for the hard work they do to keep everyone fed with nutritious, safe, and delicious food. Yes, I am making money at the farmers markets, but I don’t know yet if I’ll recover all my expenses this year. At the beginning of the year, I bought a bunch of equipment and supplies to get me started, plus I always have my monthly rent and utility bills for the farm. It would be amazing if I could make everything back this year and have a little left over to pay myself, but most new businesses don’t make money in their first year because of all the upfront equipment costs. I’ll be able to answer this question a little better at the end of the year. Suffice it to say, I have a lot of vegetables to sell and I am selling them, but I don’t expect to get rich this year or any other year, for that matter. Farming is not a lucrative business, but most farmers don’t farm because they’re hoping to strike it rich.
Do you own the farm?
No, I am leasing the farm this year. The farm belongs to the Mays family, whom I have known for almost 15 years. They are leasing me the land where I grow the vegetables, plus a trailer on the property where I live. I also get to use the tractor and farm implements, and I can harvest from the existing apple trees, blackberry bushes, and strawberry and asparagus patches. I hope to have my own farm one day, but leasing is the best option for me as a first-time farmer. Without the burden of a mortgage, I can figure out if I will be able to farm full time without another income source, if there’s a market for the kinds of vegetables I want to grow, and if I am capable of growing said vegetables in Northern Kentucky’s soils and climate. I learned most of my farming skills in Washington and California, both of which have very different growing conditions than here. It is also extremely helpful to have some existing equipment on hand because it has aided in keeping my first year costs down while I figure out how to run my farming business.
How big is the farm?
The entire farm is roughly 35 acres, most of which is hilly and wooded. The parcel where I grow everything is just under 2 acres. Some of that 2 acres is taken up with grassy headlands, trees along the edges, my greenhouse, and a blackberry patch, so the actual area that I am tilling to grow annual vegetables is 1 acre.
Is your family glad to have you home?
That’s a question best answered by my family, but I am pretty sure they are happy to have me home. I have been away from Kentucky for 10 years, and while it feels like a big change to come home, it also doesn’t. My family and friends have been so wonderfully supportive that it has been pretty easy to pick up where I left off. Sure, I miss my friends in Seattle, but I also miss my friends from New York, and friends that are now scattered all over the country. I wish I could scoop them all up and bring them to my farm so we can all live together, but that’s not very realistic. Luckily, with the support of my friends and family here in Kentucky, I was able to take a little vacation to the West Coast for a wedding in mid-July when the farm was in full swing. I hope I will always be able to take trips like that, and I feel pretty blessed to have friends waiting with open arms wherever I go.
This past week on the farm, a major crop of weeds sprouted following two days of heavy rain. Our onions and celery seemed to be engulfed in them overnight. Last Monday, Chris spent half the day clearing out around the onions and on Wednesday, my parents and our friends, Tina and Donna, helped to save the celery. These crops in particular have a hard time out-competing their weed neighbors. They are skinny and tall and don’t send out a lot of horizontal leaves that would shade out their competitors, so they require repeated weeding to ensure they receive sufficient light and water instead of their free-ranging weed neighbors.
Whenever I think of weeds, I think of a story that my friend, Rachel, told me once. She had a plot in a community garden in Nashville and spent a lot of time at her plot pulling weeds. One Sunday, Rachel and her husband were in church and the preacher was talking about weeding as a metaphor for simplifying your life, how plants require water and light and can miss out on those things if they are cluttered by weeds. Suddenly, Rachel’s husband turned to her and said, “Oh, now I get why you spend so much time weeding in the garden!” He thought she was just doing it to keep the garden looking neat and tidy, not realizing how weeding helps your vegetables get all the light and water they require. I’m sure it can look like a tedious job to the non-gardener, but weeding is an essential part of keeping your vegetables happy and healthy.
On the other hand, weeds can actually serve a purpose in your garden. Whenever you have bare soil, weeds are sure to pop up within a few days. Their seeds are ubiquitous in the environment. They float in on the air, are carried into or buried in the garden by animals, and are dropped from parent plants around the edges of your garden. They can live for years in the soil, just waiting for the right conditions to germinate. You don’t have to do anything and they just grow up on their own. That can be nice sometimes. Without the root systems of weeds, bare soil will wash away in a strong rainstorm. The roots of weeds also harbor bacteria, fungus, protozoa, nematodes, and other microorganisms that help to feed the roots of vegetables in your garden. Weeds can also help keep the soil moist by trapping water between the surface of the soil and their leaves. I have seen super dry bare soil after a hot week without rain, but if you look under a squash plant with weeds around it, the soil is still moist!
One of my farmer mentors, Bob, didn’t like calling them weeds. Instead, he called them “nature’s support” because he saw them as free helpers. He didn’t have to plant them, they just came up on their own, helped keep soil in place, helped keep the soil microorganisms happy, kept the soil moist, and generally added biomass to the garden that would eventually compost down into free soil! Acknowledging that weeds can sometimes grow faster than vegetables and get the edge on sucking up water and sunlight, he would have us do a little “competition control” and that meant cutting back or mowing down “nature’s support” plants so that our vegetables would now be winning in the competition for light and water. Note that we never “weeded” on Bob’s farm. I really like thinking about weeds in this way. So often we vilify “weeds” or “pests” when really they are just trying to live like everything else in the garden, and often they do much better than the things we’re actually trying to grow. Now that I’m a farmer, I realize that you must intervene and give your vegetables the edge if you want to be sure you can eat or have vegetables to sell at the end of the day, but that doesn’t mean that all weeds or bugs need to be eradicated from the garden. They can still live there and contribute, just with some checks and balances from the farmer.
I wanted to give y’all a little update on last week’s discussion of cabbage moths and their caterpillars’ never-ending appetite for my cabbages and kale. WASPS HAVE ARRIVED! There are several species of predatory wasps that can help control cabbage moth populations in the garden. Depending on the species of wasp, they may eat the caterpillar to feed to their wasp babies, or they may lay eggs on the caterpillar, then the wasp larvae emerge and consume the caterpillar. This past week, I have noticed quite a few wasps flying around the cabbage patch. Upon closer examination, they were crawling around, looking for and consuming cabbage moth caterpillars. Nature at work! Chris and I have seen fewer caterpillars this week, perhaps due to increased wasp dining, but also perhaps due to the rainy weather, which keeps the moths (actually, they’re really butterflies) from flying around and laying their eggs on my brassica plants (kale, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, collards). Either way, the caterpillar damage seems to be less at the moment, and I’m glad that I have wasps around the garden helping out!
Today, my mom, dad, and their friend, Ric, came down to the farm to help out. I’ve had a new car canopy sitting in it’s box in my living room for the last couple of weeks, intending to put it up over the area where I wash vegetables, but unable to find the time to actually put the thing together. While I was out picking veggies for Sunday’s market, my parents and Ric put together the canopy and re-arranged the wash station so that I now have everything under the cover of the canopy. This will be so helpful for keeping everything shaded and free from tree debris and rogue bird poo.
Chris and I do most of our vegetable picking in the morning when the plants are cool(er) and moist. Once the veggies heat up, they respire faster, which leads to wilting. We want the vegetables we sell at market to look nice and perky and to last longer in your refrigerator, so it’s imperative to get them out of the field in the morning when their respiration rate is lower. Once they are picked, almost all the veggies get sprayed off by the hose on a wire mesh spray table or dunked in water to remove dirt from the field. My dad helped me construct an elevated stand that holds a bath tub that I can fill with water for cleaning the vegetables. The dirty water is easily drained out of the bottom of the tub, then it gets cleaned and sanitized before the next round of vegetables comes in to be cleaned. Once the vegetables are rinsed, they are organized in plastic totes and placed into our awesome veggie cooler trailer and kept at 39-40 degrees F until they go to market. I have several bottles of water that I freeze before the market, then place inside the totes once we open them at the market. That helps hold the vegetables at a cool temperature inside the totes for the 3-4 hours we’re at the market. Keeping the veggies fresh and clean looking is definitely time and energy consuming, but I think the end result is worth it – several customers have told me how long their Dark Wood Farm vegetables last. Even though Chris, my mom, and I spend a lot of time cleaning the vegetables, I always suggest that you wash again at home. We don’t use any sprays or dangerous chemicals on your veggies, so you don’t need to worry about that. However, an extra rinse with cool water will help remove extra dirt that didn’t come off in the first rinse and help alleviate any wilting that happens during the time between buying the vegetables and getting them in your fridge.
Bugs! A sign that summer is here is the amazing diversity of insects flying around the farm. I’m anti-spraying, so the good, bad, and ugly insects have taken up residence at Dark Wood Farm. So far, I haven’t had to deal with much insect damage on the vegetables aside from flea beetles on my early radish, turnip, and mustard crops and some leaf miner damage to salad ingredients. I was able to mitigate some of the damage from these insects by using fabric row covers over the plants. This time of year, though, the fabric row covers can make the plants and soil too hot, so I’ve quit using them except for over my eggplants. Eggplants like heat, and they are a favorite food for lots of insects, mainly the eggplant flea beetle which turns eggplant leaves into swiss cheese in no time. The eggplants don’t like to be abraded by the fabric, so my dad constructed some wire hoops that Chris and I put over the freshly transplanted eggplants with the help of our workshare friend, Lisa. Now the eggplants are growing safe and sound under their little fabric hoophouse.
Lately, though, I have been wringing my hands as I see a new set of insects emerging. I’ve spotted my first few Colorado Potato beetles, known to defoliate potato leaves, and Japanese beetles, which eat just about every type of plant that I grow. By far, the insect causing me the most concern at the moment is the cabbage moth. This seemingly innocuous looking white butterfly (yes, it’s a butterfly and not a moth even though it’s called a cabbage moth) flits around my field looking to lay its eggs on any member of the brassica family it can find. This includes cabbages, kale, collards, kohlrabi, brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cauliflower. The eggs hatch into tiny little green caterpillars that eat their way through the leaves of the plants where they were born before they pupate and emerge as an adult butterfly. If you’ve ever found a little green “worm” on your kale or in a head of broccoli, this is the culprit! I knew I’d have some of these little guys on my brassicas, and given my 50% for humans, 50% for nature philosophy, I planted extra. My thought was, the cabbage moth caterpillars can eat some of the plants, and I’ll just harvest the nice looking, undamaged plants to take to the market.
So far, my “plant extra” philosophy has worked, but now the problem is that the cabbage moth caterpillars are everywhere! Really nice looking kale plants have little caterpillars hanging out on the leaves. Beautiful broccoli heads have little caterpillars hiding inside them. What to do?! I realize that most people don’t enjoy finding insects on their food, so I’m in a bit of a conundrum. I cannot guarantee that the vegetables I’m picking right now are bug-free. Any time I see an insect on my vegetables, I pick it off. I also vigorously rinse my vegetables before they come to market, which removes insect hitchhikers. But the truth is, that if you looked close enough, especially with the help of a microscope, you would probably find some kind of insect on the vegetables that I sell at market. Now, take a deep breath and ask yourself how you feel about that. Does it gross you out? I know I hated finding cabbage moth caterpillars on the kale I would eat from my family garden when I was a little kid. Since then, I’ve changed my mind about finding bugs on my vegetables. I’ve changed my mind because I know that it is impossible to grow totally insect-free vegetables without sprays. Whether it’s chemical sprays used in conventional agriculture, or even “organically accepted” insecticides like Bt (Bacillus thuriniensis) or spinosad, these products were developed to kill insects. While I don’t like some insects that are hanging out on my farm and eating my vegetables, I really like some of the others and don’t want to kill them. I have honeybees, praying mantises, ladybugs, and all kinds of other insects doing wonderful things like making honey, eating “bad” bugs, and pollinating my fruit and vegetable plants. Whether I like these insects or not, they are all part of a larger food web that is alive and robust on my farm. Take one piece of the web out, and there are bound to be unforeseen consequences. Also, what the heck is in those sprays and what do they do to your body if you ingest them? I mean, even the “organic” insecticides are made from bacteria in higher concentrations than you’d ever find in nature or they are some sort of engineered extract from bacteria or fungus. I figure, if I am afraid to put the insecticide directly in my mouth, I better not put it on the food I’m going to put directly in my mouth. The result of not using sprays, however, is that my kale *might* have a cabbage moth caterpillar on it when you buy it at the market. My collard leaves might have a few holes in them where a bug took a bite. Here’s the thing – eating a leaf with a hole in it will not adversely affect your health. Accidentally eating a cabbage moth caterpillar won’t adversely affect your health either. In fact, it’ll give you a little extra protein! The thing is, I don’t know what eating kale with insecticide on it is going to do to your health. I also don’t know what that insecticide will do to the health of the beneficial insects that live on my farm, and all the other creatures that eat those insects. So, I choose not to spray anything and let the bugs work it out among themselves while I keep myself busy inspecting kale leaves and pinching all the little green cabbage moth caterpillars I can find.
In honor of Father’s Day, I want to share with you one of the many projects my dad has been working on for the farm – the refrigerated trailer. When I moved onto the farm in January, I knew I was going to need some sort of refrigeration for the vegetables. The summers here get hot and a lot of the vegetables I am growing need to stay cool (down to around 41F) for up to 24 hours before they go to the farmers market. I looked into buying a used large-sized commercial refrigerator, but I don’t have an obvious place to put it where it can be plugged in. The barn would work well because it’s covered, but it doesn’t have power, so that was a no-go. There’s limited covered space around the house, and I was worried about a refrigerator sitting outside and getting wet from the rain and the snow. With that option out, I immediately thought about walk-in coolers. Lots of farms use them, and the farm where I worked outside of Seattle, Local Roots Farm, even had a walk-in cooler that was powered by an air conditioner instead of a compressor. This is an energy-saving option made possible by a little device called a CoolBot that tricks the air conditioner to run at temperatures lower than normally possible. The only problem is that I am renting the farm and don’t plan to be here forever, so it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to install a walk-in.
That’s where the refrigerated trailer comes in. While poking around on Craiglist looking for farm equipment, I came across an ad for a “Veggie Trailer.” It was an insulated 6’x12′ trailer that contained an air conditioning unit inside. The guy who had built it had used it to cool vegetables to take to market, but he was getting out of the vegetable growing business and wanted to sell it. Here was an option that worked for me! The trailer could be pulled up by my house where the air conditioner could be plugged in, it was weather proof and water tight, and could travel with me when I move off this farm onto my own property. So, I bought the trailer and my dad and I hauled it home to the farm, and I started using it to store and cool my vegetables overnight before I’d take them to the market. The only problem was that the air conditioner could only cool the trailer down to about 55F at best, and on warm days, it struggled to get below 70F. That didn’t really help much with my veggie cooling issue, so I had to keep everything inside the trailer iced down to keep them cool enough. But what about the CoolBot?! I knew a CoolBot would help solve my problem, but unfortunately, the air conditioning unit inside my trailer wasn’t compatible with the CoolBot. My dad found a used air conditioner that would work with the CoolBot, and this past week, after he retired for the second time, he spent several days installing the new air conditioner, adding extra insulation to the trailer, and hooking up the CoolBot. The final version of my refrigerated veggie trailer is awesome, and it’s now sitting out in the shade under a big sycamore tree next to my house waiting to be put to use. We had to work out some electrical issues over the last few days, but everything is up and running and the CoolBot-powered air conditioner is cooling the inside of the trailer from ambient temperature down to 40 degrees in less than 15 minutes, which is amazing!!! I am so excited to put the trailer to use, and can’t thank my handy dad enough for doing all the hard work, especially since he’s retired (again).