Sustainable Farm Alarm: Sleepy Farmers Face the Dawn

September is a lovely month on a New Hampshire vegetable farm. The summer crops, tomatoes and zucchini, yellow squash and cucumbers, peppers and eggplant, are still productive, but they are not so productive that a farmer dreads the thought of harvest. Nine hours of picking tomatoes, or two hours of picking tomatoes: two hours seems positively luxurious.

With our extra seven hours, we can start moving into the fall crops: digging potatoes or topping the Brussels sprouts or gathering apples to make cider, always a welcome fall treat.

Or we can sleep. Gee, it seems harder and harder for a vegetable farmer to get up this time of year. Luckily, we have several sustainable methods of accomplishing this:

The Kitty Alarm, #1: All summer, the kitty likes to go out at 4:30 a.m. Sometimes when I gaze blearily out at the 4:30 a.m. world, I think, hey, it's light enough to get some work done. Happily, my bleary body thinks this is a Very Bad Idea and takes my bleary mind back to bed. Even more happily, as dawn comes gradually later, the kitty changes her schedule too, and this time of year she doesn't want to go out until 5:30 a.m.

The Coffee Alarm: In the early part of the season, when the peppier of the two farmers gets up at 5 or 5:30, he works for an hour or more, and then comes back in for his coffee. He comes in very quietly, so as not to disturb the sleepier farmer. But there is no way to quiet the coffee alarm. It takes three taps to dislodge the coffee grounds from the metal coffee-basket into the metal compost bin. Tap. Tap. Tap. It's time for coffee. Or it's time for sleepy farmers to get up.

The Draft Horse Alarm: This works best when the horses are in the pasture they like least, which borders a swampy area and is full of bugs. They come galloping down the hill, hooves pounding and noses snorting, and generally emanating enough “Get out of your beds, you lazy farmers, and let us in the barn!” vibrations that we comply. On rainy or cooler days, however, the horses are perfectly happy to stay in their pasture night and day. Thus draft horses do not make a dependable alarm, in case you're thinking of getting a few to replace your morning buzzer.

The School Alarm: This really is a morning buzzer, dreaded by all. But we have a far more pleasant music setting alarm on our digital clock, so we can wake up to some nice cello or flute music. Obviously, this is not in use in the summer months, but in September, when all the farmers except the one who has to go to high school could stay in bed nice and late, the flute and cello alarm encourages all of us to get up and get moving. This alarm varies slightly, from 5:45 to 6:45, depending on how much homework the high school farmer has yet to complete.

The Kitty Alarm, #2: If we get this alarm, we are really slug-a-beds. This happens about 7:30 or 8:00 a.m. Our screen door doesn't latch tightly, and a clever kitty can get her paw around the edge of it and bang the door. And bang the door. And bang the door. Clearly the kitty is ready for her mid-morning snack. Why, indeed, are farmers even in bed at this late hour? Luckily, this alarm is also weather dependent. When we take the screen door off, and put the storm door on, there's nothing for the kitty to catch hold of and bang. 

Of course, by door-changing time, it has gotten cold enough that our kitty stays nicely asleep later and later in the morning with us, and soon it will be cold enough that our garden will be put to bed too. We'll all get to sleep. Ahhh ….

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, Sept 27 - Oct 3, 2017

Weeds Are Our Friends (Sort Of)

Weeds are a farmer's friend. Well, sort of our friends. At least they are firm acquaintances, and we've come to know their quirks and habits by long association. They come back, year after year, in dependable succession. Some have lovely flowers and interesting names; some are edible and easy-going; some are deep-rooted and determined. We always say it's a good thing those determined perennial weeds appear first, in the spring, when a vegetable farmer still has abundant energy and will to entertain the first of the weed visitors.

Morning Glory: When our daughter was very small, and just learning weeds, she called Morning Glory “Glorintine.” Thus we have two nice names to call this perennial, in the rare moments when we're not calling it not-so-nice names. Glorintine has a pretty cup-like white flower, but if we get to the flowering stage, we're in trouble, because it means the glorintine has already twined and vined itself with incredible vigor and strength around any and every available vegetable. Recently it took me and a pair of clippers more than an hour to free eight suffering pepper plants from flowering Morning Glory bondage.

Quack Grass: Some people call this couch grass, or quitch grass. Along with Morning Glory, it is our most difficult perennial weed. Quitch is enough to make a farmer twitch, quack, and want to lie down on a couch (though it is pronounced “cooch.” But we'd be happy to lie down on a cooch, too.). It spreads by long white roots underground until it has colonized the entire garden, requiring a weeding revolution, and a fair amount of farmer foaming-at-the-mouth.

Hairy Galinsoga: This is often the first of the annual weeds, and it is speedy, coming to flower (and shortly after to seed, spreading itself everywhere, fast) in only 21 days. It has tiny white daisy-like flowers, and a tough root system that likes to dislodge neighboring vegetables when we pull the weed out. Old H.G. also has an alternate name on our farm. I grew up in a cheddar and American cheese household, whereas my farming fellow's family was morely likely to venture into Brie and Gorgonzola. When I inadvertently said “Hairy Gorgonzola,” my fellow thought this was riotously funny, and now we have lots of hairy, cheesy weeds around.

Red-Rooted Pigweed: We like this weed. It has a good name too, with many variants: purple or common or pigweed amaranth. Best is that it pulls up easily, not disturbing the vegetables nearby, even when it is very large. It does grow fast and has a scratchy flower bud, but we don't mind; it's just such an easy-going weed. When our girl was little, she would start out by weeding everything out of the row of lettuce. Then she would weed out only the weeds she liked; pigweed was one of the ones she liked. (Next she would start playing with the weeds, making families and stories. Then it would be time to go in for a snack.)

Lamb's Quarters: is also known as wild spinach, and some people eat it. In fact, when we had a friend visiting, a friend who finds edible weeds very interesting, he picked a lot of lamb's quarters, laboriously plucked off the tiny leaves, and put them in a basket for our CSA members on harvest day. There was even a sign: “Wild Spinach.” Our CSA members looked with mild interest at this little basket full of little pale green leaves, and then sidled over to the harvest crate full of big dark green hearty civilized spinach. But sometimes I eat a leaf or two as I am pulling it out of my carrots and beets, and I feel very thrifty and wildcrafty indeed.

Purslane: A fleshy, floppy kind of weed, purslane is also edible. It has a tart, almost lemony taste. Recently, we had a Weeding and Ice Cream Party for our CSA members. Undaunted by the knee high weeds in our Brussels sprouts patch, the good members waded in and weeded. Along the rows, we offered the copious purslane up for samples. One person nibbled doubtfully, shook her head, and said “Hmm, I'm not getting lemony.”

Another person took armfuls home for her salad, which just goes to show how weeds really are our friends, and it's good that they visit the farm regularly. After all, If a vegetable farmer doesn't produce enough produce, there's always plenty of weeds for people to eat. Yum.

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, August 30-Sept 5, 2017

Farmhorse Escapade

Occasionally we vegetable farmers briefly slip away from the garden during the high season. We know this is a crazy thing to do, but we sure hate to miss a nephew's graduation or a mother's birthday. Even though we are gone less than 24 hours, we are pretty sure what we'll find when we get back: the weeds will have grown to gargantuan heights, the greenhouses will have been open for the 4 inches of torrential rain, our kitty will be desperate to get back outside, and our horses . . . well, our horses will be safe and happy in their pasture paradise, flush with grass and water. Right?

Wrong. Recently, after a visit to relatives, we returned to our farm at about four in the afternoon. There were many messages on our answering machine:

6:07 a.m. Hi there, sorry to call so early, this is your neighbor, right down the hill from you. We're pretty sure your horses are down here, they're heading out to the street. We wanted to let you know, we're keeping an eye on them, and . . . oh, they're walking out onto South Village Road right now. They're pretty big horses, and we're pretty sure they're yours. Hope you get this message soon.

“Oh, no, oh no!” My fellow farmer is ready to race out the door, panic and despair on his face. We both have instant, terrible visions of traffic accidents on the main road, people and horses hurt.

“Wait, wait!” I say, “There's five more messages! Anything could have happened! They could be anywhere!” Oh please, I am thinking, please, please, let everything be all right.

6:36 a.m. Hey guys, this is your neighbor down the hill, I believe you already have a message from my wife regarding your horses. I'm currently following them, just hanging out with them. I don't really know what to do or how to bring them home, but my cell phone number is …. Hopefully you'll get this and give me a call and I'll let you know where your beautiful horses are.

These two messages are from our brand-new nice neighbors, trying to help us out. We are slightly reassured. Someone is keeping an eye on our wandering horses, someone is hanging out with them, someone even thinks they are beautiful, as we do.

7:11 a.m. Hey guys, your horses are out and were down the road. Somebody's bringing them back up, I believe.

This is a voice we immediately recognize: our long-time nice neighbors, still helping us out after all these years. They let us make hay in their fields, and our horses graze their pastures, too. In fact, when our horses do get out, they usually go straight to this neighbors' field (or lawn, more often) and make themselves at home, a safe and friendly place, thank goodness (and thank the neighbors). And if someone is bringing the horses back up, that's got to be good.

7:16 a.m. Hey there, our neighbor just called saying that somebody stopped down to the village store thinking that your horses were out. I didn't know if you guys were home or what the deal was, but give me a shout.

This message is from one of our nice CSA members, who lives right down in the village, where the horses-are-out word is spreading fast, apparently. We are a little embarrassed, but mighty grateful. There are many eyes looking out for our horses.

And then we listen to the last message, again from our long-time neighbor:

7:23 a.m. So your horses are over here in our pasture when you get this message. Bye.

We sag, nearly weeping with relief. Our horses are safe and sound. There have been no traffic accidents, no one hurt. We start calling everyone back, thanking them for all their concern and effort on behalf of local farmers and farmhorses. We find out that yet another villager, one who also has draft horses, drove by, called his spouse, and then she drove up with halters. Our beautiful, naughty horses were amenable to the project of being led from the road back up to our nice neighbor's pasture, where they are happily ensconced once again.

Later that evening, we take a walk around our farm. We find the horses' tracks in the barnyard and stable, where they could have stayed happily in the shade and out of the bugs. We find their tracks into and out of all of our hayfields, which have not yet been cut for hay, and where they could have stayed happily eating lots of grass. Of course, they could have also stayed happily at the neighbors' barn and grass. It appears that the horses just decided to have a little walkabout, and visit the whole neighborhood.

We farmers are thankful indeed for the whole neighborhood, indeed for the whole community: a community which cares about loose horses, and which also has halters big enough to fit them; a community which makes it possible for us to take a tiny break from farming, and come back to farming; a community which we help sustain and which helps sustain us.

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, August 2-8, 2017

We Like it Fresh

July is all about freshness on our New Hampshire vegetable farm. Well, maybe the farmers and the farm horses aren't overly fresh in July, but they plug steadily along, working in the heat or the pouring rain, in the four greenhouses and the four garden sections, and in the hayfields to boot.

But the food on a vegetable farm in July? Now that's fresh.

Of course, since early spring we farmers have been eating some fresh-from-the-garden food, such as the lovely salad turnips and bok choy and salad greens and spinach, but “some” is the key word here. Because in March, and April, and May, and often even in June, we're still working primarily on last year's store of food.

There's the winter squash, for example, which keeps for many months, and even if it begins to tire in March, we cook it and freeze and have it for many more months. Why, we had pumpkin-it's- really-winter-squash cookies and muffins and soup in the middle of June this year. (But at least we had some yummy fresh salad to go along with it.)

It's a little harder to think what to do with the last bag of frozen kale as summer approaches, because the new kale in the greenhouse is already coming in, tasty and tender. Still, throw a handful of frozen kale into that pumpkin-it's-really-winter-squash soup, and we've accomplished another thrify meal.  

Then there's the shallots, which keep the longest of all our onion crops. By summer we've made our way through the white onions, the yellow onions, and the red onions, and now we're on to the shallots. The onions start growing green tops sometime along in the early spring, but we just cut them off and pretend they're scallions, and use them along with the onions and shallots.

Our root cellar, too, depending on the year, may still hold potatoes or daikon radishes or rutabagas into the summer. The produce is a little soft, maybe, but what's a thrifty vegetable farmer to do? It's three months or more before those crops come in, and besides, if the potatoes are soft, they'll just take less time to cook.

Thus we make our sustainable way through the spring-time, munching determinedly on the old stuff, celebrating the end of the frozen winter squash and the frozen summer squash, the frozen kale and chard, the frozen beans, broccoli, eggplant, pesto, the peppers and berries and rhubarb and salsa. There's the canned beans and tomato sauce and applesauce and cider, the maple syrup and pickles and jams and jellies, as well as the dried hot peppers and tomatoes and apples and herbs, and the sauerkraut and kimchi. The root cellar holds potatoes, beets, carrots, daikon radishes, turnips, rutabagas.

We peer into the depths of root cellar and chest freezer, we rustle among the jars in the pantry, we study our charts where we mark down everything we froze and canned and dried and fermented the year before. We are grateful indeed for all this food, and amazed once again at all the work we did in storing it up. How did we ever manage to put all this food by when we were so busy in the garden? And will be able to pull it off again?

But we don't need to think about that yet. It's only July, far too early to start canning, freezing, and drying. We've finished the old, and it's all about fresh food this time of year. As one of our CSA members said long ago, enthusiastically, “We like it fresh!”

We like it fresh too (even though we haven't got as much nerve, or maybe as much humor, as our farmer-colleagues on Tracie's Community Farm in Fitzwilliam, whose T-shirts say “Get fresh with us!”). We revel foremost in the luscious tomatoes, slicing and plum and cherry, closely followed by snap and snow peas, cucumbers, zucchini, yellow squash, scallions and lettuce. We've got basil and fennel, carrots and cabbage, beets and broccoli. We've got beans and eggplant and peppers.

And did we mention the luscious, juicy, mouthwatering tomatoes? All in all, we've got it fresh . . . we've got July!

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, July 5 - July 11, 2017