Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Climbing the pyramid

I like to think of winter growing in terms of a pyramid.  The higher up you go on the pyramid, the more protection you are providing to your crops.  The deeper into winter you go, and/or the less cold-hardy the crop, the higher you need to go on the pyramid.  This year, we are making an effort to harvest as much as we can from lower on the pyramid in order to save our peak for later in the winter.  The lowest step on the pyramid can be...No protection at all!  We have been harvesting kale directly from the field, and the kale for this week's share will still be from the field.  We've talked to growers who harvested outdoor kale into January even last year's Polar Vortex.  We wanted to do that, but we didn't plant enough!  Not to worry, though, we have 1200 row feet of kale in our caterpillar tunnel.

This year, we have a new low step on our pyramid.  We are putting in some "low tunnels;"little mini-greenhouses which you may have noticed as you drive by on Pine Street.  We spent some time sourcing the materials, so they didn't go up as early as I would have liked.  I think they may be especially useful for extending the season on lettuce, arugula, and spinach from the field in late fall.  But we have put them up over our fall-planted carrots.  These were seeded in late October, and we expect them to germinate over the winter and be ready to harvest in May.  We also have some kale, lettuce, arugula, and totsoi that we hope to harvest in March.  Here are some pictures of the construction process.

Monday, November 10, 2014

2014 Season in Review

All in all, it was a pretty good season.  The weather was on the wet side, but our soil is more than a little bit sandy, so things worked out well.  After a cold winter, and a slow start in the spring, the weather never got outrageously hot, and it rained enough that we didn't use our irrigation setup at all.  That was a good thing, because it broke in August 2013, and we didn't get it fixed until this September.  Actually, it is now mostly fixed, which is a good thing, because after two wet years in a row, we've got to have a dry spell some time next year.  Here is a crop-by-crop rundown:

Asparagus: Hah!  We don't grow that, not yet!  But we prepped up an area to plant next spring and bought in some (organic, of course) from Warner Farm to include in the Spring Share.  We should be picking our own for the Spring Share in 2016 or 2017.

Beets:  We had a little trouble getting used to our new seeder in the early part of the season, but once we got it figured out, the new seeder let us drop seeds a a more precise spacing, with the result that we have more beets for winter storage than we have ever had before.

Beans:  Eaten up by Mexican bean beetles!  We hope for better luck next year.

Broccoli:  Our strategy of making a couple of big fall plantings seems to have worked out well .  We decided that trying to have broccoli all the time meant that we had not-enough broccoli all the time (broccoli takes up a lot of space in the field, and we just don't have the acreage for it).  Whereas this year we had plenty of broccoli when we had it.  Next year we will put in one later planting so that we have a bountiful supply for the whole fall.

Brussels Sprouts:  We had some good brussels sprouts, but a lot of them got rot on the sprouts.  Not a total loss like some years, but not the best.  Picking off the lower leaves seemed to help--we will try to do that earlier next year.

Carrots:  We had one small gap in carrot production due to getting used to our new seeder, but just as with the beets, in the later plantings, the new seeder has meant that our carrot yields are out of the park.  If we don't develop some new carrot markets over the winter, we might have enough to last clear into June.

Cilantro:  Sorry, but we kept trying to get a decent stand of this, and it never happened this year.  We suspected our new seeder, but finally decided that it was a germination issue with the seed.  We hope for better luck next year on this one too.

Cucumbers and Summer Squash:  We had a nice long run of these crops from June into August.  They tend to get killed by disease in the late summer, and we are looking into organic ways to control that in hopes to extend the season a little longer.

Eggplant:  We had plenty of it, and well into the fall.

Fennel: We had a nice crop through mid-summer. Next year, we plan to plant some for the fall.

Garlic:  We had some nice large garlic varieties several years ago, and then lost most of those varieties to a nematode issue.  This year, we are planting all new larger varieties and hope to have a more bountiful supply. 

Kale:  We continue to be amused by the new-found popularity of this leafy green.  In some ways  it symbolizes the change in our culture towards the healthy side of things, but what about chard, or collards, or other greens?  But anyway, we had plenty of kale all summer and will be picking it for a good part of the winter too.

Lettuce:  We got a new "finger weeder" that has really improved the weed control for lettuce, including for the new "salanova" types that grow like a head and then fall apart into individual leaves for salad mix. We had a couple of short windows without head lettuce, but the wet weather really helped this crop out.

Leeks:  We have been trying various techniques to plant the leeks deeply so that they'll form a nice long white stalk.  This works out well, except that we then end up covering some of the plants as we fill in the trench and get a thinner stand than we would like.  We had good leeks for a while this year, but think we have a better idea for how to plant them next year that should result in enough leeks to last throughout the fall.

Melons:  This was our one real loss to weeds this year.  We are going to try and have some more help next year in May, June, and July, so that we can stay on top of the weeds better.

Onions:  We had crazy weeds in our onions this year, due to never getting in for a second hand-weeding, but that doesn't seem to have stopped us from getting a decent crop.  We may try growing some without plastic mulch next year, and use our new finger weeder to keep the weeds out.

Parsnips:  We had a crop loss on parsnips this year because we just couldn't get the seeding rate right on the new seeder.  This is especially hard with parsnips, because they have a 3-week germination period so you don't really know what happened right away, and can burn up the planting window with only two or three tries.  We spent years trying to get the seeding rate right with our old seeder, and finally had a crop in 2013.  Maybe we'll keep the old seeder for parsnips...

Potatoes:  We had to mow these down early this year because there was late blight in the plants, but we already had a nice crop underground by that time.  We've had plenty all season and should have enough for the winter share too.

Salad greens:  The wet weather was great for getting a nice stand of our various salad greens established just about every time we seeded.  We didn't have a gap in production the whole season.

Strawberries: They were awesome. It seems that this was an exceptional year for berries all around, and we hope that how we managed this crop also contributed to the great harvest, since management is something we can replicate in future years.

Sweet Potatoes: Wow!  We had a nice crop of sweets this year--over two tons (thanks, weeding fairy!)  We should be eating these all winter, assuming our cobbled together heated storage unit keeps working properly.

Tomatoes:  We continue to be plagued by late blight.  Our strategy of spraying biological controls until the blight shows up and then switching to copper didn't seem to work out very well this year, so we will be using copper right from the start next year.  We are also looking into growing more of the crop inside, which would mean some new investments in greenhouses.  We had a pretty good crop this year in spite of the blight. 

Winter squash:  Our best crop ever.  This isn't a crop that we have excelled at in the past, but we hit it this year.  The finger-weeder really helped a lot with the weed control.

That's the rundown on the major crops.  If you have questions about any of the minor crops, feel free to shoot us an email.  We hope you enjoyed the season and that we'll see you next year and at the winter share or winter market.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Pie for Supper!

by Audrey

Here is a follow-up on the sweet potato essay - my favorite sweet potato recipe. I prefer dishes that solidly sweet or savory, and this is a lovely savory pie that makes a great main dish. Serve with a salad (I love the bright colors of the orange pie next to a salad with arugula and roasted beets), and some bread. We had a dinner guest who allegedly disliked sweet potatoes, but had seconds of this pie!


2 cups mashed sweet potatoes
1 cup plain yogurt
2 eggs
1/2 tablespoon butter
1/2 cup minced onion
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon fresh sage leaves, plus 5-6 pretty sage leaves
1 teaspoon salt
a few grinds of black pepper
1 9" pie crust (I like to add some finely chopped pecans to the pie crust)

Preheat the oven to 375 F.
Peel and chop the sweet potatoes, and steam until tender.
Meanwhile, saute the onion in the butter until translucent, then add the garlic and saute for a couple more minutes.
Puree the sweet potatoes (a food processor or blender works well) and make sure you have 2 cups
Add the yogurt, eggs, onion/garlic, salt, pepper and sage. Puree until smooth.
Pour the sweet potato mixture into the pie crust. Decorate the top with the reserved sage leaves.
Bake for 40-50 minutes.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014


by Farmwife Audrey

Sweet potatoes are possibly my favorite vegetable. They even have a delicious-sounding Latin name: Ipomoea batatas. Its cousins include the showy, and prolific, morning glory. Though a tropical plant from the Americas, sweet potatoes can be grown in chilly New England, and brighten our tables at Thanksgiving and well into the winter.

Ian reporting on the harvest on his tater-phone.
We’ve grown sweet potatoes at Simple Gifts Farm for years, and love to see their beautiful vines sprawling across the field, to harvest them just after the first frost, and to share their carotenous bounty with you.  This year (with a bit of help from a weeding fairy), we grew a nice crop, pulling out about 2 tons from 1/3 of an acre.

However, they do have some fussy post-harvest requirements. Immediately after harvest, sweet potatoes must be cured at high temperature (80oF) and humidity, conditions that are not typical of October in Massachusetts. Thereafter, the tubers need to be stored at cool room temperature (55-60oF), which is much warmer than the mid-30s that most root crops enjoy.

In past years, we’ve somewhat fudged this part, curing them in the greenhouse. In many autumns, this works reasonably well, with toasty daytime temperatures and moderate nights. After curing, we have stacked crates and crates in our home basement, which is conveniently at just the right storage temperature during the winter. Not so conveniently, our basement (which is also where we send cabin-fevered children and do the laundry), gets pretty dirty, especially when the crew comes through the window to fetch a crate or two for the winter share.

Last year, however, our luck with the greenhouse-loosy-goosy-curing ran out. As house-boss, I was traumatized. I don’t really like to think about it. I didn’t want to write about it, but Jeremy thought it was a good example of how we learn and improve things each year. After last year’s late first frost, it became dismally cold. After ‘curing’ the sweet potatoes in the not-hot greenhouse, the crates stacked in our lovely basement grew horrible white mold all over them. You see, curing literally means that the heat and humidity cure the inevitable nicks and bruises that sweet potatoes acquire when harvested and disconnected from their vines. A cork layer develops, and suberin is deposited (this is for the plant nerds – suberin is a waxy material produced by the tuber’s outer root cells).  The cork layer and suberin act as a barrier to decay-causing microorganisms and to excessive moisture loss during storage. Curing also jump-starts the process of converting starch to sugar, which makes sweet potatoes sweet.

We lost most of the crop last year. Something had to change.

Jeremy, circa 1998, on a farm-built rocket ship.
This year, we have the U-Haul. Jeremy got it for cheap from a guy just over the border in Vermont, who had super-insulated it as a retrofitted walk-in cooler for his yogurt delivery business. The first time we tried, a small space heater got the inside up to 120oF. Talk about Yankee ingenuity. It is a really ugly truck, but it is awesome.  Jeremy got a $35 thermostat for the space heater, and now can keep the U-Haul a cozy, even 80oF.  So, we’ll cure the sweet potatoes for a week or so, then turn down the thermostat to 55oF, where they can happily hang out with the winter squash until we all eat them.  I swear, farmers SHOULD build rockets.

Monday, October 6, 2014

First Frost: A Photo Essay

We rise to greet the first frosty sunrise at Simple Gifts Farm with a bittersweet mix of relief, sadness, and the type of exhaustion you feel after climbing a beautiful and steep mountain. 

We, and the farm, have landed in autumn. Frost is the kiss of death for tender crops like eggplant, but a sweet kiss for hardy crops like the Brussels sprouts and kale.

We were out yesterday evening, double-checking that all our hoophouses were tucked down, protecting our autumn crops. We'll be out this week, harvesting the sweet potatoes.

The clover and rye are unperturbed by this frost, and will continue be a living blanket of green on our resting fields.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Meet the Crew, Part IV. Sam DeBoskey

By Audrey Barker Plotkin

To Sam DeBoskey, farming feels like activism that he can get behind with his whole person. Picking tomatoes, moving cows to a new pasture, and tending the soil are all physical acts, but ones that together move towards his ideal of doing regenerative and positive work.  As we chat (and pick tomatoes) I can hear the philosophy student and idealist in Sam.

"Animals make me happy," says Sam DeBoskey. The cow agrees.
Sam grew up in Denver, Colorado, and first came out to Amherst to attend Hampshire College. He was studying philosophy, sociology and anthropology when he took a summer job on a cattle ranch back in Colorado. Farming manifested the ideas of sustainability and community he was studying, and he returned to Pine Cliff Ranch for three seasons. There, he helped to manage 250 cows on a rotational grazing system. The farmer there called himself a grass farmer rather than a rancher, a view that Farmer Dave at Simple Gifts Farm shares. In fact, Sam first connected with Simple Gifts Farm by interviewing Dave for part of his Hampshire Division III thesis.

In addition to the ranch, Sam worked at the Hampshire College Farm, mainly with their livestock, and on a crew that renovated a 75,000 square foot greenhouse for organic tomato production near Denver. He also travelled through Europe, the Middle East, and Indonesia with a study abroad program visiting intentional communities and eco-villages. Everywhere he went, he was most drawn to the food production aspect of these communities.

At Simple Gifts Farm, Sam is expanding his skill set to vegetable production. He is most excited to learn about soil health, to discern what the soil needs for the plants to do what we want them to do. He also has become much more comfortable using tractors to do a variety of tasks. His main tractor is the John Deere 1010 (our first tractor!) which he uses to apply organic fertilizer with the spinning spreader or side-dresser, and to mow with the brush-hog. Managing the livestock is another role that Sam enjoys here. A couple of afternoons a week, he moves fence to rotate the cows and chickens to new grazing areas. He says, ‘animals make me happy’.

He is also struck by the beauty of the vegetables – a glossy purple eggplant, a Striped German tomato. I think about this later, as I serve up a pile of vivid orange carrots to the gaggle of kids who just harvested them while helping (or is that ‘helping’?) at the farm on this Labor Day. A favorite vegetable is hard to choose, but Sam especially enjoys golden beets (roasted, or grated on a salad) and spinach (in smoothies).

After asking the usual questions about his farming path, I ask Sam if he has anything he’d like to add. He considers, and then says how grateful he is for how Jeremy and Dave hold this place and how they welcome the apprentices as part of the farm. He is glad to get to know the families and communities that tie this farm together (in return, our boys hero-worship the apprentices). It is joy for us, too, to have the chance to be part of our apprentices’ paths, to know their hopes and vision for making a sustainable future for themselves and the communities they build.