Sunday, August 24, 2014

Meet the Crew, Part III. Hilary Dennis

Hilary Dennis, with her harvest game face ON

By Audrey Barker Plotkin

On a misty August morning before 8 a.m., I find Hilary Dennis in the full swing of a harvest day, picking hoophouse tomatoes. Over the course of the interview, I am in constant motion to keep up – up and down the hoophouse rows, into the box truck as she drives the crew out to the zukes and cukes, then into the cucumber rows. Fortunately, I’ve had my first cup of coffee.

Hilary studied environmental studies and Spanish at New York University, where she graduated in 2010. NYU, in the heart of Manhattan, isn’t where you’d expect to get the farming bug, and indeed she somewhat backed into farming. First, she became engaged in the local food dialogue in New York. One summer, she had two internships – one promoting a new farmers’ market in her hometown of Grafton, Massachusetts, and the other working on the state Global Warming Solutions Act with the Department of Environmental Protection. She noticed that although the state sought input from local farmers on how farms could reduce carbon emissions, those meetings were scheduled for mid-day during the height of the growing season. This disconnect between policy-makers and farmers got her thinking that she would like to go to law school and become an advocate for small farmers in policy. To start from the ground up in this plan, she decided she should get some experience working on small farms. Well, the grand plan radically changed on the first day farming – she fell in love with farm work and now aspires to some day have her own vegetable farm.

The Farmall 140, with belly-mounted basket weeder
Since graduating in 2010, Hilary worked on several farms in the region, but this is her first experience as a full season apprentice. She greatly appreciates the opportunities at Simple Gifts Farm to build her skills. In April, each apprentice is assigned a tractor, and Hilary jumped at the chance to learn to operate the Farmall 140 – our second-smallest tractor we use for precision cultivating work. This tractor also needed a fair bit of maintenance work (typical for this 50-plus-year-old machine), so Hilary quickly became well-acquainted with the machine, and learned that being handy with fixing equipment is a key part of keeping a farm running.  Six months later, her favorite job is using the 140 for basket weeding, and she is looking forward to continuing to develop her field operations skill-set. When it is her week on the farm lunch rotation, she also enjoys experimenting with cooking up the produce – she even made ice-cream with her favorite vegetable, fennel!

When I ask Hilary what stands out to her about Simple Gifts Farm, she tells me how valuable Jeremy and Dave’s personalities are. Their patience and support to the crew set the tone for good morale. To Hilary, this is why despite the unseasonably cool and wet season, and all sorts of challenges, the crew can work well together to produce an abundance of amazing food.

We are glad that Hilary will join us for a second season, and we think her calm cheer and organization will set the tone for another good year. After she gets more experience managing a farm, we hope to see her (perhaps with her sister, who is also a farm convert) running her own successful enterprise.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

An Ode to Potatoes

Farm Kid Jesse wrote this poem last year in sixth grade. Jesse just spent his annual farm-work week of summer vacation digging potatoes and harvesting lots of other crops, seeding, weeding, and enjoying being part of the crew.

An Ode to Potatoes
Farm Kid Jesse shows off his favorite footwear.

O, Potatoes
Without you life would be deprived
of your starchy texture
Your tantalizing smell
As you cook in the oven

You are delicious in every way
boiled, baked, mashed, fried, roasted

It is a blessing that you can be stored all year

To dig you is like
discovering delightful riches
Dirtying my hands
But cleaning my mood
of any imperfections

You can create colonies
If I put you in your soil

Dining on you is an amazing
ritual of flavor

O, Potatoes
Without you, O mighty tubers
I would weep

Monday, August 11, 2014

Science at Simple Gifts Farm

Early on in my farming career, I took a break from farming to go back to school at the University of Maine to study ag science. By the end of that stint, I was even more committed to farming as a career, deciding that traditional science took  too much effort to answer fairly limited questions, and that I would prefer to work in food production and leave some mystery about why things happened one way or another on the farm.  But my curiosity still gets the better of me, and there still end up being questions that I want to answer.  This year, we have been comparing to two different schools of thought on how to analyze and fertilize our fields, with the help of a grant that I received from the Northeast SARE program.
                In organic agriculture there is currently a little subgroup promoting soil fertility programs which they call “nutrient density.”  The idea is that by providing full balanced nutrition to the plant, rather than just looking for the traditional nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus, you can grow more healthy plants that will resist insects and pests, give higher yields, and will also produce healthier produce.  This full nutrition is achieved by testing the plants to see what nutrients are lacking, and providing those by spraying small doses of liquid fertilizer to the soil and/or to the plant leaves.  We have played around over the past several years with some of these liquid fertilizers, and mostly liked the results, especially when we are able to put some of the fertilizers into the soil in our drip irrigation.  We haven’t been quite as happy with our 2-row crops such as broccoli, cabbage and potatoes.  It is clear that those crops need more of something, but we wanted to find out what they need more of.  So this year, we divided one of our potato blocks into a number of randomized plots.  In one treatment, we followed UMass soil test recommendations for fertilizer, and then tested the soil after the potatoes were planted to see if there was a need for more nitrogen.  There was none, so we left them alone.  In the other treatment, we applied microbial inoculants that are supposed to help fix nitrogen, and have kept up a spray regime of liquid fertilizers in a program that has been modified based on the results of plant tissue tests.  We recently mowed our potato crop due to the late blight (the hope is that by killing off the plant and then waiting a little while before harvesting, we can limit the blight from infecting the tubers.)  We didn’t really see much differences between the treatments in insect or disease pressure, but next week we will be digging subsections of that field to look at yields and quality of the potatoes in the ground.  We are eagerly awaiting the results, and will let you know what we find out.
             P.S. We have really been enjoying the "Purple Sun" potatoes--the ones with the purple skin and yellow flesh.  That variety was released by Jeremy's old advisor at the University of Maine, Greg Porter.  The flavor and texture is wonderful in a potato salad!

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Busman’s Holiday: Farmer Jeremy gets the Blues

Jesse raking blueberries in 2004
Every year, the Barker Plotkin family ascends from the Happy Valley to the windswept western hills of Heath, Massachusetts, to have a little busman’s holiday. Our day-trip to The Benson Place to rake up boxes of blueberries has become a cherished family tradition. In 2004, we made our first outing with baby Tim in the front pack. We read “Blueberries for Sal” to 2-year-old Jesse on our way, and he chided us throughout the day not to eat the sweet berries because we had to save them for winter. We didn’t listen, but still brought home 40 pounds of beautiful blueberries (and purple-stained teeth). We’ve made it up there nearly every year since.

Jesse and Jeremy in 2014
This year seems to be a banner season for berries. Like our bumper strawberry crop, the farmers at The Benson Place are enjoying a fantastic crop. Is it because we didn’t get a late freeze that damaged blossoms? Is it a particularly good year for pollinators? We’re not sure, but are grateful. Lowbush blueberries are a treat to harvest, too – rather than pick individual berries from bushes, special blueberry rakes can scoop up masses of berries all at once. Today, with excellent picking and our now-big boys helping, we raked up more than 60 pounds in less than an hour! The process of sorting them back at the barn actually took longer than the picking itself, but was full of camaraderie as people picking tend to help one another sort through their berries.

We put most of the berries into quart-size freezer bags and stock up our chest freezer for the winter. I like to make a batch of jam, and a pie or two. The small berries freeze beautifully, and we make generous use of them all year in muffins, pancakes, and smoothies. It is New England beauties like these semi-wild blueberries that assuages envy of California foodshed delicacies like avocadoes and limes.

Timmy showing how it's done!
Although it still is farm-related work to pick 60 pounds of blueberries on your day off, visiting another farm where we aren’t in charge is definitely a relaxing break! Farmer Jeremy did actually rake blueberries as a job. One summer during college, he and some friends raked blueberries in eastern Maine. They camped all summer on land owned by the man for whom The Grateful Dead wrote the song “Cosmic Charlie.” It sounds like a great summer gig for a young person, but now my back cringes at the thought of all that bending to rake the berries, followed by sleeping on a camp pad every night.

We’re grateful to live in such a beautiful area with a thriving farm culture. If you’d like to give raking low-bush blueberries a try, the you-pick fields at The Benson Place will be open one more weekend. If we see you with purple teeth, we’ll know you went!