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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
The big news on the farm this week is that help (and company!) has arrived. My friend, Chris “Vyper” Pyper and his feline companion, Smudge, will be living and working with me here on the farm through the growing season. And, yes, Smudge has to work too – she’s on bug killing duty in the house. Chris and I met when we volunteered for the same AmeriCorps program in 2010. We both led trail crews in the Pacific Northwest – me in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington State and Chris along the Pacific Crest Trail in Northern California and Southern Oregon. We were thrown together often for trainings and special events, and when we realized we would both be moving to Seattle after AmeriCorps, we promised to stay in touch. It wasn’t long after we both moved to Seattle that we realized it would be fun and cost-effective to be roommates, especially because we shared a love for cooking local, sustainably grown food. Chris and I lived in a few places around Seattle, but we always had a garden, whether in the ground or in containers on our balcony. We even converted a little shed into a chicken coop and kept four laying hens in our backyard in urban Seattle. Aside from his full time job at the Mountaineers, Chris worked for Nash’s Organics at two of Seattle’s largest farmers markets, while I started exploring the ins and outs of farming as a volunteer at the University of Washington Farm and then as an employee at Local Roots Farm.
When I left Seattle to move home and start my farm this year, it was bittersweet. While I was excited to return home to my family and friends in Kentucky, I was very sad to leave my wonderful friends in Seattle, especially Chris who had been an amazing roommate and friend (and Smudge wasn’t so bad either). Now that Chris has decided to come spend his summer and early fall at Dark Wood Farm, I am overjoyed. We have already accomplished so much during his first week here, and we are cooking some pretty amazing meals from all that the farm has to offer, with a little help from our fellow market vendors too. So far, Chris is adapting to the humid heat of Kentucky (he grew up in the dry heat of Utah), and we both got called “city people” while hauling water from the local well today, but we are both enjoying the sunsets, listening to the birds while we work, and sharing the bounty of the farm with family, friends, and market-goers alike.
This weekend marks a momentous occasion for me and the farm – my first trip to the farmers market! Four busy months have passed since I moved onto my little piece of leased land down in Belleview Bottoms, and now it’s time for the vegetables of Dark Wood Farm to make their grand debut and start filling the bellies of folks around Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati. On Sunday, May 4 from 10AM-2PM, I’ll be bringing lots of spring greens to the farmers market at Findlay Market. Spring greens are a great source of vitamins, minerals, and fiber, which improve digestion and help your body detox after a long winter of heavy, fatty foods. As a bonus, most spring greens will enliven your taste buds with a spicy kick, bold nutty flavor, or bitter bite.
Most of the greens I’m bringing to market this week are in the mustard plant family, including arugula, french breakfast radishes, and Asian salad greens including mizuna and tatsoi. They went into the ground as seeds on March 24 and have grown happily through the cold, wind, rain, and even heat over the past 6 weeks. Their only nemesis during the spring months is a small, black, jumping insect called the flea beetle. Flea beetles emerge around the same time that the redbud trees bloom here in Kentucky, and when they start looking for food, they LOVE the spicy flavor of plants in the mustard family. Left unprotected from the flea beetle, spring mustards would look like they were blasted by a shotgun, with tiny holes all over the leaves. Some farmers prevent flea beetle damage by applying weekly doses of insecticides, but I don’t want to eat raw greens covered with chemicals, so I use fabric row covers to cover the vegetables that are most susceptible to flea beetle damage. Even so, some flea beetles find their way under the fabric and leave their trademark holes on my spring greens.
Since I cut spring greens by hand, I can check for flea beetle damage as I harvest. Really holey leaves get tossed on the ground become compost and feed the soil, but I do keep some leaves that have minimal damage from the flea beetle. The holes do nothing to affect the taste and quality of the vegetables, so if you find an arugula or radish leaf with a hole or two, don’t worry – in fact, rest assured that your veggies are free from chemicals and safe to eat.