Farm News

Creative Processing: Part II

photos of colorful produce, figs and onions

part two: The Winter Cover Crop

This essay is a continuation of last week’s musings on creative processing.

Eventually, the mixing and matching of fabrics and shapes subsides and the quilter heads for the scissors, needle and thread. It’s time for action. In late September, I head to my fields with seeds of various sizes, shapes and colors in tow. There, the remnants of summer crops and plant residues are in various stages of decay. What comes next? It’s time to sow winter cover crops.

My farm quilt is heavy because it is composed of multiple layers. If soil is the backing, then my winter cover crops are a thick batting. Cover crops are plants that protect the soil from rains, add or hold nutrients, loosen compacted soil, and improve the habitat for macro and micro-soil dwellers. These are crops planted for the express benefit of the soil; no part of the plant is harvested or sold. Eight months from now, no one will see them, but just as the feel of a quilt is largely determined by the thickness of the batting, the cover crops I now sow into my quilt will have a substantive effect on the yields and health of next year’s market crops.

How does one choose the right cover crop batting? I must think spatially to ensure relationships and adjacencies are mutually beneficial over time. Rye grain and hairy vetch lend body and structure, feeding the soil with large amounts of biomass. The rye binds soil nitrogen to keep it from leaching away and quickly colors the land with a dusty, spiraling green. (You can see it now, a soft fuzz of grass-like leaves germinating in the fields closest to the gravel lane.) Hairy vetch unfurls thick vines and compound pinnate leaves which climb the rye stalks rapidly and dot the spring fields with deep violet, tubular blossoms from which the bees drink heavily.

Instead of the traditional plain white batting, my batting is multi-colored and multi-textured. Visually, I am sowing a constantly changing tapestry of art. Practically, I am deciding what crops can or cannot come next.

For example, the three inch tall curling green rye of November will metamorphosis into five foot tall fibrous tan stalks by June. So while rye and her good friend vetch provide excellent soil protection and organic matter, they require additional time in the spring to break down such a significant amount of biomass. This is not a problem if I don’t need to transplant crops until late June. But what about my early spring lettuces and greens? Field peas are slower growing, but pull nitrogen right out of the sky to feed those hungry spring transplants. Oats act as a nurse crop. The bright green seedlings emerge quickly to cover the bare fall soil, thus blocking sunlight from germinating weeds. Then, in the hard frosts of late winter, the oats die back, giving slower growing peas space and sunlight to flourish. These partners both have a smaller growth habit and tender stems. Thus they are easily incorporated into the soil with only one pass of the disc. Once turned under, the plants release their nitrogen stores and provide a soft, rich seedbed for my earliest, slower growing crops.

So in one way, winter cover crops are the activity that puts our fields to rest for the closing year. In another way, their sowing represents a beginning- the first act we perform in the coming year’s farming cycle.

photo of new plants growing in a field

In one block, I’ve sowed oats and peas. All winter and spring, the peas will work their green magic by pulling nitrogen from the sky to sequester it in a network of roots that appear as bright pink polka-dots connected by gleaming white threads. Next spring, we’ll turn under the oats and peas and hand plant undulating hills of potatoes. Those plants we hope will grow lush and green, hiding their underground treasures in shades of purple, red and cream. In late summer, we’ll un-stich these hills by hand, then iron smooth the wrinkled ground in preparation for rye and vetch to grow all winter. The following spring, we’ll turn under the rye and vetch, hoping rye’s allelopathic properties will help suppress future weeds and vetch’s extensive biomass and blooms will feed our soil and our bees. Then the cycle will begin again: a new year’s quilt, but rotated. Never the same square twice. If potatoes occupied Block 4 this year, perhaps we’ll ‘stitch’ them into Block 5 next year. Can you see now, how my winter cover quilt is one hidden, but important element of this perpetual quilt of systems and cycles?

My winter cover crops are partially hand seeded, and partially sown by machine. My grandmother made handstiching look effortless, but she also relied on a treadle powered Singer. My machine is a little red hand-cranked broadcast seeder. Without the din of any engine, I can hear the pleasant tap-tap-tap the seeds make as they land on the receptive soil. I wonder, did the rhythmic motion of the foot pedal and the sounds of the Singer similarly delight my grandmother?

My footprints across the blocks, followed by the ridged steel of the cultipacker, act like a presser foot to ensure the soil stays taut against the newly sown seeds. Sufficient seed-to-soil contact is important for germination; we all need shelter and stability. It feels good, giving protection and cover back to the land that has fed us all season long. It feels right to be blanketing my earth, tucking her in with a heavy, handcrafted winter cover quilt.

Now, there is only one thing left to do: secure the layers together. Real quilters use a special frame and heavy thread. How will my seeds and soil become united? I leave this most important work of connecting layers to Nature. I imagine she’s partial to hand tying; raindrop by raindrop, she’ll call awake her seeds. These new living beings will then send their roots deep and wide, holding the soil and entwining each other with the comfort of a newfound integrity.

My work done, I wait eagerly to welcome home the lively, quilting rains. ~AJ

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Roasted Eggplant and Tomato Pasta

photo of roasted eggplant and tomato pasta
Roasted Eggplant and Tomato Pasta
 
AJ says: Thanks CSA member Meg who shared this recipe and photo with me. Meg said she often makes her own summer squash pasta and turns this dish into a real celebration of AJF summer produce. That makes a farmer happy!
Recipe by:

Ingredients
  • 1 ¾ pounds eggplant, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1 to 2 banana or Italian frying peppers, halved, seeded and thinly sliced
  • 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, more for drizzling
  • Kosher salt
  • 12 ounces pasta, such as campanelle or farfalle (or summer squash noodles made with a spiralizer)
  • 2 pounds very ripe heirloom tomatoes, halved through their equators
  • 1 to 2 fat garlic cloves, grated on a Microplane or minced
  • Large pinch crushed red pepper flakes
  • 2 tablespoons brine-packed capers, drained
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter (optional)
  • Grated ricotta salata or Parmesan cheese, for serving (optional)
  • Fresh mint or basil leaves, for serving

Instructions
  1. Heat oven to 450 degrees. Spread out eggplant cubes and peppers on a rimmed baking sheet. Toss with 3 tablespoons oil and season well with salt. Roast, turning everything, until eggplant and peppers are very soft and deeply golden brown, 30 to 40 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, cook pasta in well-salted boiling water until about 1 minute shy of al dente. Drain.
  3. Using the large holes of a box grater, grate tomatoes over a large skillet so the pulp falls into the skillet. To do this, hold on to the curved side of the tomato in your hand and slide the cut, flat side across the holes. Stop grating just before you reach the skin.
  4. Add the garlic, red pepper flakes and 1 tablespoon olive oil to the pan with the tomatoes and bring to a simmer. Simmer until tomato pulp is reduced by half, then season to taste with salt.
  5. Add the pasta, capers and butter, if using, to the pan with the tomatoes and bring to a simmer, tossing until butter melts and pasta finishes cooking, about 1 minute. Turn off the heat and toss in eggplant and cheese, if using.
  6. Serve pasta drizzled with a little more oil and the herbs.

Notes
Adapted from a recipe by Melissa Clark from The New York Times

 

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Goats. In the Drive. Naturally.

photo of farmer brad with cat "cheetah" on his shoulder

The farm is a powerful magnet for stray animals. Maybe there is an aura we humans cannot see that the wayward beasts are attracted to. Maybe they somehow know that naughtiness is accepted here. Whatever the reason, they show up regularly. We have met Apollo and Big, both happy labs from the neighbor out near the road. On separate occasions, they decided to do some extended exploring and ended up at the farm. We have also met Buddy the Saint Bernard from a neighbor accross the ravine. Another time, I got scratched helping a peacock over the fence.

photo of goats grazing down the driveway on the farmAnd then there are the cats. Lots of cats. Some of you know Thumper, she was a stray that wanted to be a farmer five years ago and still enjoys helping us in the field. And we can’t forget Lambert, the giant puffy guy that just wanted to be part of the family. Also, we can’t forget Elmer, who stuck to me like glue. We nicknamed him Baby Cheetah because of the spots on his belly. He was a fun companion in the field for over a year.

There was also Pickles, a wild tomcat who appeared at the pig barn several months ago. He has since moved on, unfortunately, but I did manage to convince him that getting pet and sitting on laps was ok.

The most recent visitors stopped by a couple days ago. We were out in the field doing things when Kaylene approached me and said, “Just so you know, there are goats walking down the drive.”

Naturally. Why wouldn’t there be goats walking down the drive? Problem is, we don’t have any goats. Luckily one goat had his lead rope still attached, so it was not difficult to get ahold of the pair and get them off in the right direction. We took them next door and one of the little girls was very happy to see her goats. We learned their names are Chocolate and Dwight. It’s actually White, but I like Dwight. So now we can add them to the list.

I wonder who’s next? ~BT

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Peperonata

photo of a bunch of sweet red peppers
Peperonata
 
AJ says: Double this recipe. You will want leftovers.
Ingredients
  • Three good splashes of extra-virgin olive oil
  • Two cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed by the side of the knife
  • Two large Sweet Italian Frying Peppers, deseeded and sliced
  • One small onion, sliced into fine rounds
  • Fine sea salt
  • Handful of flat-leafed parsley, finely chopped
  • Handful of fresh basil leaves
  • Crushed dried red chili

Instructions
  1. Place the oil in a deep frying pan along with the garlic, and heat the oil gently, allowing the garlic to impart itsf flavor into it. Do not let the garlic could and burn.
  2. Add the peppers and onions long with a good pinch of sea salt, and fry gently for around twenty to thirty minutes, stirring frequently to make sur the peppers do not burn. If the garlic starts to burn, remove it from the pan.
  3. When the peppers and notions are sot and emptying, sprinkle over the parsley and basil, stir well then add a few pinches of chili, if using. Taste for salt, and add more if desired.
  4. Serve hot, with lots of fresh crusty bread – though this dish tastes more delicious the following day, served at room temperature.

Notes
Adapted from a recipe by Tracey Lawson in her book A Year in the Village of Eternity

 

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Agricultural Literacy Matters

I have come to understand that like it or not, part of my job description reads ambassador.  Only 1.9% of Americans currently list agriculture as their occupation, which means most visitors to my farm have no personal connection to farming or farmers.  Many have formed their perceptions of agriculture from behind rolled up car windows, thru glossy magazine photographs, or increasingly rarely, from the distance of childhood memories spent “at Grandma and Grandpa’s farm.”

Today, Americans collectively know little of the life cycle of any one plant, yet alone the distinct differences and characteristics of many of our basic crops.  In the news, the few articles about farming are decidedly one-sidedly, written by reporters without any agricultural background.  With respect to growing food, public discussions are reductionistic.  Impatiently we ask, is something “good” or “bad”?  In the case of agriculture, what we don’t understand, we overly simplify.

My primary goal as ambassador is to help restore a basic level of agricultural literacy in our community.  Because so many do not have a personal connection to any aspect of the farming cycle, everything from seed to table is foreign.  The fundamental tenants, the crucial processes, even the language of growing food is a complete mystery to most.

It use to baffle me, given this foreignness of agriculture to so many, given a societal reluctance to get ‘dirty’ and to think about the cycles of life and death, why year after year, so many people want to spend time at farms.  But then I came to witness first hand how visitor after visitor is captivated by the experience.

At the beginning of each farm tour, I use to work very hard to explain with great seriousness the entire system and structure of my farm.  But this approach was entirely unnecessary.  For how can you listen to the encyclopedia being read aloud when there is a pack of grunting, rooting pigs at your feet?  How can you pay attention to statistics and crop rotation maps when the air is perfumed with tomato leaves and you are bursting to ask the name of the most delicately beautiful flower you’ve ever laid eyes on?

No matter what the purpose of the tour, I notice that a comprehensive overview of what the farm is and how it “works” is less important than allowing tiny connections to spontaneously happen.  Any more, I don’t try to bombard visitors with the seriousness and sanctity of growing healthy food.  Instead, we walk and talk and experience small vignettes of today’s farm, which is different than yesterday’s or tomorrow’s farm.  One woman has “the best conversation of her whole day” with my hen Marigold.  Another peers closely at the tiny blue flowers carpeting the recently disturbed soil, declares them gorgeous and then bashfully asks, “But are they a weed?”  A gentleman sees the unique shape of our curved hoe blade and it reminds him of his summers spent in ‘Auntie’s pole bean patch.’  A young boy just wants to know if he can touch his very first pig snout, declaring afterward, that “it is definitely softer than most.”

In my ambassador’s quest for agricultural literacy, I field seemingly simple questions: why some sweet peppers are yellow, why there are sticky tiny bugs on broccoli heads, why some lettuce heads have a pointy top, and why tomatoes don’t grow in winter.  I patiently explain the connection between cilantro and coriander, and why can’t you plant one Brussels sprout if you want to grow more Brussels sprouts.

The questions come at me with a black and white innocence, revealing deep assumptions about how we position ourselves in relationship to Nature.  Some of the questions take me aback with their honest ignorance; surprisingly, there exists little common understanding between humans and the land we walk in.

What is a weed?  How do you grow a grape plant from a seedless grape?  Do you need roosters to have eggs?  A-B-C.  Agriculture Literacy 101.  First we learn the letters, their sound ringing strangely off our tongues.  Then, slowly, over time, because we begin to care, we learn how each piece goes together.

Interestingly, on my ambassador tours, it matters less whether I explain the life cycle of an onion or describe why pigs need wallows.  What matters is the flickering connection 98% of us never knew we yearned to restore.  What matters is that, without fail, every first time visitor to my farm sounds out one new letter, one strange consonant or vowel, and they do it happily, curiously, without any sense that “important, serious” knowledge about our basic human needs is being forced upon them.

Farm systems teach us much of the natural cycles of life, and in doing so, inform and affect our perceptions, our perspectives and our sense of possibility.  Most of us have not spent our childhoods weeding gardens, canning tomatoes, milking cows or watching Mom butcher the mean rooster.  Most of us do not have the luxury of agrarian knowledge accumulated over the course of the two decades of our childhood.

So letter by letter, word by word, concept by concept, I answer the curious questions.  It is brutally slow and an entirely un-comprehensive approach.  But I hold out hope that each naïve question I answer sincerely will lead to another.  I hope that each person who visits will leave yearning to gain a simple fluency of the language of our food.  Yes, here and there, I can only hope a tiny seed germinates common understanding.

It is an absolute delight to bear witness to obtuse misconceptions falling away, sloughed off like one’s heavy, dirty coat at winter’s end.  My own perspective and understanding is deepened by such experiences.  This is because, plant by plant, row by row, hand by hand, a small question leads to conversation, leads to philosophical ponderings, leads to more questions.  Question by question, I become a better ambassador.

Of course lessons from the soil affirm and provide perspective, of course they ‘ground us.’  Regardless of if we have ever kneeled to earth in wonder or not, we too, are of the soil.  We forget often and easily, but we humans depend entirely on the generosity of Earth.  Doesn’t it make sense we rekindle this fundamental relationship?

What are the primary agricultural lessons?  Watching the seasons come full circle, again and again, each year different, but each year with the common and comforting wild moorings affirms for me:  Life, beautiful, miraculous life, goes on.  Food, beautiful, miraculous food, is not to be wasted.  We, beautiful, miraculous creatures, plants and humans, and our fates, are all connected.  ~AJ

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