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

The Itching Post

Our work horses have a high old time in the late spring. They are out on green grass, which causes much equine glee, evidenced by all the kicking, running, rolling, and munching. The early spring horse work is finished, and the summer horse work hasn't quite started, so our horses spend the days at leisure in the pasture. 

Actually, they spend the nights at leisure in the pasture. During the days, they are at leisure in the cool, bug-free stable. Every morning, the horses come up to the gate for deliverance from pasture heaven, which has been slightly compromised by all the biting bugs.

The horses swish their tails and stomp their feet, and gaze meaningfully in our direction, waiting to be brought into the barn. We keep an eye out for the meaningful gaze and an ear out for the stomping hooves, because if we miss the gaze and the stomp, there will be be horses galloping and gasping and sweating and swearing at the flies. If we still miss their meaning, there will be horses busting through the gate and making their own non-leisurely way to the cool, bug-free stable.

This occasional gate-crashing is more of an emergency escape, caused by the lack of complete farmer attention on horse comfort, and is thus excusable. However, our bug-bitten steeds have another habit that we farmers find a little more daunting.

This is the Itching-All-Bug-Bites-on-Whatever's-Handy habit. This is also understandable, given the extreme itchiness of bug bites, for humans and horses alike, but it does cause some consternation for the farmers. We are not keen on being the Whatever's Handy, and we discourage horses from scratching their large selves on our small selves (though it's certainly nice to groom an itchy horse, because she or he is in such bliss).

Normally the horses wander at will in and out of their stalls, itching themselves on mangers or water troughs instead of people, or ambling around to check the bug situation. Still buggy? Back in their stalls they hurry. Usually this system works well, but recently we discovered that an ambling itchy horse had decided to test out the post that holds up the lean-to roof. Not as a hitching post, mind you, but as an itching post.

And, heck, when a big horse behind starts itching itself on a post, what happens?

The post comes loose, that's what happens. Then a busy springtime farmer doesn't have time to fix the post right away, so he or she decides to halter the horses and tie them in the stalls for the day, so the post situation doesn't get any worse.

However, the farmer forgets that one of the snaps on the ties periodically despairs of its duty, thus releasing an itchy horse to amble. The itchy horse finds the wobbly post, and itches some more. The post gets looser and looser. Another horse, dismayed by the lack of his escaped buddy's company, breaks his snap entirely and goes out, also to amble and itch.

Thus the post comes down completely, as a dismayed farmer discovers later in the day. The horses are returned to their stalls, the snaps are jerry-rigged, and the farmer also ties a piece of baling twine behind the horses, as a suggestion that they not back up and escape, a suggestion that they kindly honor.

Then for a fun change of pace from planting, plowing, weeding, and watering, the farmers replace the concrete footing, and prop up the sagging roof with a tire jack and a four by four. We position the heavy post, which won't fit exactly in the right place, so we stick it another likely spot, true to our usual busy farmer carpentry efforts.

My fellow farmer balances on a wobbly ladder with a drill, and I stand under the wobbly ladder, holding the heavy post and whimpering, wondering when the jack is going to kick out again and knock over the four by four, the wobbly ladder, my fellow farmer, the drill, the heavy post, and me.

Happily indeed, the jack does not kick out again, and my fellow screws in the post and we step back and admire our work.

It is a short period of admiration, an admiration bordering on disbelief, since the post is very very very crooked. But by then it is after seven o'clock and we haven't had any supper and we are hungry and the horses are hungry and we give up for the day. We take our horses out to pasture, where they are very gleeful, kicking, running, rolling, and munching. Which is right where we started in this itchy busy sustainable farming story, and a fine place to end.

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, June 21 - 28, 2017