Sunday, July 28, 2013

Meet the Crew: Part I. Zan McKenna

Zan McKenna sorts tomatoes at the wash station carousel.

Every year, I particularly enjoy interviewing our farm apprentices. These talented people work amazingly hard to make the farm go, and I want to share my appreciation for them with everyone who enjoys the food we grow. Over the next couple of months, I’ll make visits to harvest fields and wash-stations to talk with our four first-year apprentices. Last Monday, I caught up with Zan McKenna while washing and packing about a million tubs of cucumbers and squash.

Zan grew up in Connecticut, and her family had a huge garden. However, like most of us, she didn’t grow up with farming. For many years, Zan planned to be an actor, and performed in musicals, movies and plays. But Barbara Kingsolver helped turn Zan’s aspirations from acting to farming. When, at 16, Zan read Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,” [note: next week, I’ll post my 2008 Down on the Farm review of this fine book] she was impressed by how fascinating and complex growing food is, and began to think this could be her life’s work. Experience at Farm and Wilderness camp as both camper and counselor added to this idea. Farming also matches well her need for physical labor. So, after graduating high school, she began to learn about and work on farms in travels that took her to several countries. Last season, she worked at Riverland Farm just up the road, where she gained more experience and met her fiancĂ©, David. They decided to stay in this area and continue working and learning while they began the search for a farm of their own. Zan applied to work at here at Simple Gifts Farm, especially drawn to our mixed livestock and vegetable operation, and the apprenticeship model in which we have our farm crew members participate in workshops other farms in the region as part of the CRAFT program, and to learn by working on all aspects of the farm.

For example, Zan hadn’t expected to love driving tractor, but she does. In particular, she really likes cultivating. It is a powerful feeling to tend the crops and soil. She also enjoys the animals – one day she burst in to farm lunch, late but exuberant about the birth of a batch of piglets. Indeed, her favorite farm job is chore duty, in which tending the various farm animals is a major part. In contrast to jobs that entail hours in one field, like harvesting, chores also gives her the chance to look over the whole farm and observe how things are going in all the fields.

As for the future, Zan hopes to raise livestock and perennial crops, as she is realizing that vegetables aren’t her particular passion. It’s hard for her to plow in fields so quickly, noting, “I’m just getting used to them and then they go away!” She and her fiancĂ© are looking for land, mainly in northern New England. Their families are supportive of their farm dream, and they would like to get started soon, as they know that it takes many years to establish a farm business.

We’re glad to have Zan’s energy and cheer on the crew, and wish her many grand meals featuring fennel (her favorite vegetable) now, and lasting success in her farming career.

For everyone of Simple Gifts Farm - Audrey

Monday, July 22, 2013

Simple Gifts in the Summertime

Guest essay by Farmer Jeremy’s sister, Marya Plotkin
Farmer Jeremy shows his nephew the tractor
Every year, we look forward to a visit to Uncle Jeremy’s farm. It’s a long journey from our home in Tanzania. Here, my boys learn new things they can do, like picking cherry tomatoes and feeding pigs, and things that are fun but that they weren’t supposed to do, like playing forts with hay bales in the barn (these things they learn from their farm-kid cousins). We get to discuss the merits of blackberries compared to raspberries, instead of comparing mango to passion fruit.

This year, we get to help harvest potatoes and carrots. Jeremy has dug up the row of potatoes with the new tractor (Little John), and five year old Tadzio and I work down the row with the crew, pulling up the potato plant, plucking the potatoes out of the roots and digging around in the dirt to find those left behind. The pink potatoes are delightful to find, like an Easter Egg hunt with all pink eggs. Tadzio insists that all of his potatoes go in one bucket, teaming up with Matt who he has pegged as the winning potato picker. He wants to be on the winning team. As the crew and I finish the potato hunt/harvest, Tadzio’s eyes shine as he dons ear protectors and rides on the tractor over to the carrots. It’s cool to have an Uncle who is a farmer.

The great potato harvest/hunt
Later, with rope around my waist, I spin webs around poles to prop up tomato plants. I think ‘this could be the best day of my vacation.’  The earth breathes dusty heat up at us at the same time that the sun pushes it down on our backs and shoulders, but the dirt kissing my skin over my shoes is warm and silky. Doing farm work is a mineral-scented reminder of who I am, who my family is, and the power of growing food.

My boys are growing up proud to have a farm in their family, full of cousins, aunties and uncles who live the farming life. Once a year, we exhale with a loud sigh, wiggle our toes in the dirt and pull carrots from the earth, admire watermelons and lemon cucumbers and red and orange-stemmed chard. We meet the people who support Simple Gifts Farm at CSA pickup, and always think, ‘what nice people.’  Thanks for the farm vacation, Simple Gifts!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Boom and Bust Lives of Cukes and Zukes

Squash season is on!

We are in the midst of our first squash and cucumber boom of the season, and I had some time to reflect on this earlier in the week while wading through a sea of cucumbers.  Cucumbers, summer squash, winter squash, and melons all belong to the vegetable family called the cucurbits.  Give them enough sun, heat, and moisture, and they will put forth a rampant growth of vines, rapidly expanding and covering the ground with the solar collection devices we call leaves.  The drawback to this rapid growth is that the leaves and stems are relatively flimsy structures.  You can think of a squash stem in contrast to an oak stem, which grows slowly over time, but is built for the long haul.  The cucurbit plants are susceptible to myriad insects and diseases, and once we start picking them (which happens three times a week), they are also prone to being stepped on or broken by a hand searching for harvestable fruit.  All of this adds up to a solid boom-and-bust cycle for these crops, which is, of course, why people came up with pickles as a way of stashing away cukes from the boom times for the bust to come. 

So how do we deal with the booms and busts here at Simple Gifts Farm?  We have a number of strategies which all boil down to different ways of helping the plants get a boost in the race between rampant growth on one hand and the various forces of death that will inevitably win in the end.  We hope to get a bunch of fruits before that end comes.  The first way is through succession planting—we plant once in our unheated hoophouse and then three times for the cucumbers and squash in the field (once for melons and winter squash, since they take more time to mature).  We are thus planting every three to four weeks, planning on having a new planting coming in when the inevitable crash occurs.  We also try to give the plants plenty of fertility, with the idea that more of that early rampant growth will translate into higher yields before the bust.  This year we are applying some liquid fertilizers, both sprayed on the crops and through the drip irrigation.  We also have a multi-pronged strategy for dealing with cucumber beetles.  The earliest plantings are covered with row cover fabric, which exclude the little buggers and also make a warmer environment for the tropical cucurbits.  After the plants start flowering, the pollinators need to get in, so we remove the row covers and sometimes apply a coating of white clay called kaolin that makes the beetles feel like they’ve landed on the wrong plant.  The kaolin clogs up the sprayer, and needs to be reapplied to any new growth, and then is hard to wash off of the squash when we pick it, so at a certain point we decide that the plants are big enough to outgrow whatever damage the beetles might cause.  As a last resort, we do have an organic insecticide we can apply, which we usually do only when we the plants are little and we can give them a jump by easing up on the pressure from the bugs.

We hope you enjoy the summer squash, zucchini and cucumbers that embody the ephemeral abundance of life during our sweet summers. We encourage you to try pickling up some cucumbers, or try the summer squash relish and garlicky squash that are our featured recipes this week.

For all of us at Simple Gifts Farm -- Farmer Jeremy

Sunday, July 7, 2013

On the Shores of Simple Gifts Farm

Part I. Glacial Geology of the Farm (first printed July 20, 2010)
Lake Hitchcock spanned much of the current Connecticut Valley.
Farmers don’t have much time to go to the beach (unless it’s biking to Puffer’s Pond!) during the summer, but we know that life is a beach at Simple Gifts Farm. In fact, the farm really is along the shore – that is, if you were to transport back in time about 15,000-12,000 years ago. Back then, the last ice age was ending, and the glaciers were in retreat. The Connecticut Valley formed the basin of the brilliantly blue Glacial Lake Hitchcock. At its maximum, this lake stretched from the dam at Rocky Hill, Connecticut, all the way north to St. Johnsbury, Vermont (find out more here). The water level fluctuated, but it appears that the farm progresses into the lake from the shore from east to west. The west end of the farm by North Pleasant Street has finer-textured soils, including some clays. The field visible from Pine Street is closer to the shoreline, and the soils have a gravelly to sandy texture. Our house, or perhaps the woods behind our house, is on a one-time beach, delta or sandbar. Indeed, when we had the foundation dug for our house in 2006, our kids were smitten with the sandbox-quality sand in the hole. As you continue east down Pine Street its intersection with Sand Hill Road (there’s a reason for that name!), you’ll be traveling by a river outlet with a delta formation. The current Mill River is what remains of this once-larger stream and delta. This includes the Town sand/gravel pit just east of the farm.

We are inland (east) from the world-famous Hadley silt loams, formed from fine-textured lake bottom deposits and more recent river deposits. Those soils are amazingly rich and fertile. The soils of our farm are dominated by Hinckley loamy sand. These are more coarse-textured than the Hadley loam, and a major challenge is that these sandy-gravelly soils do not hold nutrients or water well. These soils are fine for agriculture when they overlay level ground, as they do here, but we have to work hard to supply the crops with sufficient fertility. Rain percolates quickly through the coarse soil, and we need to constantly correct soil fertility with targeted applications that the crops can take up quickly before they wash down through the soil profile. In addition to strengthening long-term nutrient holding capacity by building organic matter via pasture rotations and incorporating cover crops and compost, we add organic nutrients into our drip irrigation, and apply foliar sprays. On the plus side, the rapidly drying soil allows us to prepare fields for planting earlier in the season, and we can ride through extremely wet years - like the one we’ve had so far this season - better than a farm with wetter soils. In addition, although it takes more work to continually adjust the fertility balance, it is relatively easier to correct imbalances than on soils that retain everything strongly.

We like our shoreline location, and knowing about the geology of the farm improves both our daily management and our appreciation of this place on earth.

Part II. Shorebirds of the Farm (first printed July 2009)
A killdeer shows its famous broken wing display.
Who jeers at hard-working farmers and thinks living at the farm is just a life at the beach? Killdeer, of course! While the rest of its kin are shorebirds, these inland members of the plover family thrive in farm fields and wide-open areas. Often seen running in starts and stops across the field, or circling overhead, these noisy birds brighten our days. Killdeer (Charaduis vociferous) are named for their loud, repeated call of kill-deeah. Their vocal repertoire also includes a rising dee-ee and low trills. By sight, they can be identified by their handsome black double breastband (chicks have one band) and the white wing stripe that is visible in when the bird is in flight.

Killdeer are ground foragers, mainly eating insects and other invertebrates, along with some seeds. They are also ground nesters, starting off the mating season with a “scraping ceremony” in which one the bird hollows out one or more trial nest sites before choosing the final site. The nest is nothing more than a shallow depression, perhaps with some pebbles added. The buff eggs with blackish-brown markings blend in perfectly with fields, pebbles and gravel. After 22-28 days, the clutch of 4-6 eggs hatch out chicks who hit the ground running – full feathers and open eyes. If you get too close to the nest, the parent may lure you away from them with a classic rendition of the broken wing trick . . . feigning a hurt wing, the bird hobbles just out of your reach until it finally takes flight, cackling “kill-deeah!”

The farm is an ecosystem designed by and for humans, but it includes a whole gang of organisms and processes that transcend our human needs of the place. The killdeer is at home in these human-modified habitats, and is a welcome, wild companion.

For everyone of Simple Gifts Farm - Audrey