Sunday, October 20, 2013

Ode to the Potato

Jean-Francois Millet, Potato Planters (19th century, France)
Behold the potato. This staple crop, from the high Andes to Europe and then to New England, grounds many a meal. What would Thanksgiving dinner be without a bowl of fluffy mashed potatoes? What would be a burger without the fries, or a summer picnic with no potato salad? Potatoes do double duty as starch and veggie; they provide complex carbohydrates, fiber, Vitamins A & C and potassium. They are filling, wholesome comfort food.

We love to grow potatoes at Simple Gifts Farm. Potatoes are one of the earlier crops that we plant, in April when the fields dry out enough to work. We start even earlier, ordering the seed potatoes in February.  If we keep them warm in the greenhouse, they will start little sprouts, and then we expose them to light by taking them out of the bags, which makes the sprouts green and harder to break off.  This process, called greensprouting, allows us to harvest the first new potatoes at least a week earlier, and also lets the potatoes get that much bigger before the aboveground plants die back in late July and early August.

The potato harvest begins in early July, with new potatoes. We aim to harvest some precious pint-fuls of red, white & blue potatoes for July 4. My favorite way to serve the first tiny potatoes is with tender, sweet peas. Later in July, we harvest new potatoes in larger quantities for great summer potato salads. The thin, tender skins and a crisp, waxy texture define new potatoes.

Now is the time to harvest the fall potato crop. These spuds have thicker skins and a starchy texture. They keep well under cool, dry conditions, and are a food to sustain us through the cold winter months.

These are the aboveground virtues of the potato. They are dirt-nestled tubers, though, and the potato harvest is an invitation for us to commune with the underground, the soil, and to behold the unseen. Harvesting potatoes is deeply satisfying, at a visceral and maybe even poetic level. Farmkid Jesse’s superhero name is Spudicto. When his sixth grade class received the assignment to write (with inspiration from Neruda) an ode to an everyday thing, his subject was The Potato.

So, come join our Second Annual CSA Potato Harvest! Farmer Jeremy will pull the potato digger behind the tractor to loosen the soil and get the potatoes to the surface. The community effort is to gather these potatoes into bags and safely to the barn. Of course, it would be a tease to harvest the potatoes, and not get to eat any. So, we will follow the harvest with a simple lunch of fire-roasted potatoes and chili.

When:  Saturday, October 26th from 9 A.M. to 1P.M.
Where:  Near the barn that can be seen from Pine Street.  Park by the distribution barn and walk back through the farm.  The potato roast will happen on the Festival Hill
Bring: Toppings you would like to eat on baked potatoes (if you want—we will have plenty of chili to top them off with). Kids and dogs welcome, but please know you’ll need to keep them back from the machinery.
Wear: comfortable, warm clothes that you don’t mind getting dirty

See you there!
Audrey, newsletter editor (and whose ancestry traces to great potato-eating countries of Ireland and Germany)

Monday, October 7, 2013

Pollinators on the Farm

Yesterday morning, I was picking raspberries from the small planting in the front yard of our house. At first, I didn’t notice the multitude of bumblebees on the flowers, because they were so quiet. I don’t know if they were actively collecting pollen and nectar from the many-pistiled flowers, or if they were coming to the end of their season. Only the queen survives the winter. But I felt an unexpected tenderness for these fuzzy invertebrates. And gratitude. Without bees and other pollinators, much of the food we grow at the farm would not come to fruition.
Just a few of the native bees in North America. Source:
Honeybees are in the spotlight because of their plight with Colony Collapse Disorder, which has decimated many hives and directly affected honey producers and farmers who rely on honeybees to pollinate crops. As with many serious illnesses, there is likely a web of direct and indirect causes. Pesticide exposure is clearly one (you can read this nice article from the Boston Globe magazine if you’d like to learn more. )

The perils may be greater but less understood for native bees. Like many of our beloved agricultural species, honeybees were brought to America and are not native to this place. However, there are approximately 4,000 species of native bees in North America. Over 80 species of bees pollinate berry crops in Maine and Massachusetts! This nearly overwhelming diversity of wild creatures directly supports our designed farm ecosystem. In turn, we must make a place for these wild citizens in our farm.

Native bees often do a better job of pollinating crop plants than do honeybees. For example, native bees increase the yield of cherry tomatoes. Although self-fertile, tomatoes cross-pollinated by bees produce more fruit. To release pollen, the flower must be vibrated at a specific frequency. Honeybees cannot do this, but a suite of native bees has the right vibration, an ability called ‘buzz pollination.’ How cool is that?

Bees need flowering plants throughout the growing season, nesting habitat, and are sensitive to pesticides. Many native bees are in decline because of habitat loss and pesticide exposure. We could do more to enhance flower resources and habitat for bees at our farm, but our hedgerows, flower plantings, and organic practices go a long way to creating conditions for these insects to thrive. Our you-pick flower and herb plantings are for your enjoyment and use, and also provide a variety of flowers throughout the season for pollinators. The hedgerows across the farm provide food and nesting habitat. Although our farm is in a residential area, the Mill River Conservation Area and well-loved flower gardens of many of our neighbors help too.

It isn’t only for our needs that we care about native bees. This is their world too, and they belong here. It is near the end of the season for many of these creatures, and I hope you will join me in wishing them every success as they prepare for winter.

If you want to learn more, the Xerces Society has lots of great information not only on native pollinators, but the wild wild world of invertebrates and their conservation needs. I also enjoyed visiting Tom Sullivan’s booth (Pollinators Welcome) at the Garlic & Arts Festival this past weekend.