Figuring It All Out on the Farm

My fellow farmer and I like vegetables better than we like numbers. We rely heavily on our fingers, our chalk, and our calculators when it comes to all the counting we need to do on our vegetable farm.

The counting starts right away, with the spring sowing. How many cabbage seeds should we sow in order to put out transplants at 16 inch spacing to fit a 3 foot wide, 200 foot long bed? This would be an easy calculation, one would think, except that the bed is really only more or less 3 feet wide and more or less 200 feet long, depending on the workhorses and the teamster and the lay of the land.

Then, of course, we always plant a few extra seeds of each crop, just in case some don't germinate. Occasionally all the seeds sprout, including the extra ones, and then we have too many plants. But we can't bear to throw any nice cabbage starts in the compost, so we try to fit all of them in the more or less 200 foot bed, which means the spacing is down to 12 inches by the end of the row, or it might mean that we put some cabbage in the next more or less 200 foot bed, which was meant for kale and chard, say, at 12 inch spacing, in staggered double rows in the bed. Then some of the kale and chard might get pushed over, too, into the broccoli, and then what? And where we will find the 20 feet for the dill that we usually tuck in at the end of a more or less bed?

We farmers look at each other, and the garden beds, numbers whirling in our heads.

Once we get the plants in the ground, we have a little rest from these difficult calculations. But it is not long before harvesting begins, and we take up the numbers again. From June through November, every Tuesday and Friday, we calculate and recalculate. Some things are easy: for example, on a June harvest day we have 17 members coming, so we pick 17 heads of bok choy, along with the other crops that are ready. But things get more tricky: one day in early July we have 64 tomatoes for 24 members, but some tomatoes are small and some are large. Then we have to make some decisions indeed.

How do we make the CSA shares as equitable as possible? Some variety in size is desirable, since one person might like a nice little head of cabbage, and another person might like a nice big head of cabbage. But when it comes to tomatoes, there are not many people who would pick a nice little tomato over a nice big one. Thus we sort our tomatoes into big and little, which further complicates our numbers.

Then, suppose, late in August, that we have 29 members coming to pick up vegetables on a Tuesday afternoon, and we have 152 cucumbers, 131 yellow squash, and 78 zucchini. This is when the calculator, or a grade schooler who needs to practice her multiplication and division during the summer months, comes in handy. We end up with 5 cucumbers, 4 yellow squash, and 2 zucchini per share. But what to do with the remaining?

Well, we make up a choice tray, where CSA members can pick either one more zucchini or one more yellow squash, and then we farmers will make a batch of pickles with the rest of cucumbers. Except that we are just finishing up harvesting the first planting of cucumbers and starting the second one, and the second planting cucumbers look beautiful and the first planting cucumbers are in funny shapes, so the counting farmer takes several funny-shaped cucumbers out of the crate to put in the surplus and sharing tray, except she forgets that she has done this in the fever of trying to count way too many vegetables at once, and we end up short of cucumbers by the end of the day, so that our pickling cucumbers turn back into CSA cucumbers. Ah, well. At least there are plenty of cucumbers.

And now, in September, we have the counting challenge of slowly moving from summerish crops to fallish crops. Of course, there are still lots of tomatoes and yellow squash, but now the onions are coming in, and soon we will be digging potatoes, and picking winter squash. We will need to count and balance those too. But all of this figuring is nothing when we compare it to the figuring that has to happen in the farm budget. Now there are some difficult jugglings and jigglings and wigglings and wagglings. As I say, we two farmers like vegetables, much more than we like numbers.

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, Sept 26 - Oct 2, 2018

Farmers: Grumpy or Grateful?

In November, it's easy for a vegetable farmer to come up with a list. But this time of year it isn't a list of things to do, though there's plenty yet. This is more of a thanksgiving kind of list, a pumpkin pie and warm houses and gratitude kind of list.

First of all, I'm grateful for the hard frost, and all the dead plants it has produced: harvest is over! Second of all, I'm grateful that it is not the night before the hard frost, when the harvest was not over, and my fellow farmer and I were up until one-thirty a.m., topping all the root vegetables we had picked all afternoon. We heaped them up on the shed tables in a towering pile: the great wall of turnips and rutabagas, the great mountain of carrots, the great mountain range and great wall of beets.

We were glad for a scrappy sort of supper between the harvesting and the topping, and we were glad for such good crops, and we were glad we had harvested in the daylight and saved the topping for our electric lights in the shed. When my fellow and I went out for our second shift at 8 p.m., it all seemed pretty doable. How long would it take to top a bunch of vegetables, after all?

Out in the shed, I liked the quiet night, with the occasional hoot of an owl, howl of a coyote. Plus we were making progress: carrots done. Not too many radishes: radishes done. Turnips and rutabagas were a little more daunting, but at least they have lots of leaf, so we could move through the pile fairly quickly, in the hour or two range. We even had a little pleasant conversation during the turnip and rutabaga hours.

“I'm so glad I put my winter boots on,” I said.

“Me too,” answered my fellow.

A half hour passed. “I'm so glad we didn't have to pick the Brussels sprouts and leeks, on top of everything else.”

“Me too,” agreed my fellow.

Another half hour. “All right! Just the beets left!” my fellow said.

“I'm kind of dreading the beets,” I answered, facing the mountain range and wall directly for the first time.

“Yeah,” said my fellow, facing them too.

We sagged a moment, and then we began the beets, as well as the next phase of the getting through the topping hours program. This is when I thought how grateful I was that I didn't have to top beets all day, every day, or all night, every night. I thought how grateful I was that I had a bed to go to if I ever finished the beets. I had a bed, and blankets, and I had food for my next meal, I had a kitchen to make the meal in, a table to eat it on, and good company to eat it with. Plus I had good company right then: I was really glad my fellow farmer was out topping beets with me.

But even with all this gratitude, the mountains of beets seemed to get no smaller.

For a little variety, I started chopping the beet tops instead of twisting them. This gave my twisting muscles a rest, and plus it gave me more to be grateful for. For example, I was not in a factory, cutting up chicken hour after hour, not allowed to take a break even to go to the bathroom, working double and triple shifts just to keep my kids fed, my little kids who have to wait in the car while I am working. I read this in a book, a true story, and I felt very grateful that I was chopping beet tops by choice, with dignity and self-direction and an eye towards sustainability.

This worked for another half hour.

Then I was getting cold, and tired, and stiff, and I was more grumpy than grateful. Thus began the third  phase, when I needed to significantly up the gratitude ante.

I'm so glad no one is threatening me with this knife, I said to myself. Then, “I'm so glad I'm not living in a war zone,” I said aloud to my fellow, who looked a little surprised. “Planes could be coming over with bombs,” I added. I was quite serious.  

“Wow,” said my fellow, “Thinking like that helps you feel better?”

“Yeah,” I answered. “To help me appreciate all we have. Doesn't it help you?”

“Well . . . I guess . . .” he said doubtfully, and then he held up the last bunch of beets. “This make me feel better.”

“Oh, fiiinnnally.” I was too worn out even to cheer. Together, we chopped off the last tops, and stumbled into the house with the last bags of beets. 

“I wonder what time it is,” I said.

“I didn't want to tell you,” answered my wise fellow, looking at his watch. “It's one-thirty in the morning.”

“Holy-moly,” I said, “It's a good thing I didn't know that before. I would have given up a long time ago.”

“Are you saying you're really glad you don't wear a watch, really grateful you don't wear a watch?” asked my funny fellow.

Yeah, something like that.

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, Nov 25- Dec 1, 2015

The Big Hairy Cucumber

We are about as local as it gets, here on our little vegetable farm. We have our three new Hampshire acres of produce, which we sell to Community Supported Agriculture members from nearby towns in New Hampshire and Vermont, as well as to folks frequenting the Keene Farmers Market. We have our several New Hampshire heirloom vegetable varieties, growing alongside all our other crops, and we have our team of New Hampshire born and raised draft horses.

We two farmers are practically local, too, even though one of us grew up outside of Philadelphia and the other on a dairy farm in upstate New York. After all, in our first season as Granite Staters, way back in '02, we received a high compliment: we were christened “not flatlanders.” As in, “I guess you're not flatlanders after all,” a remark made by our neighbor of seventy plus, who was has lived in New Hampshire all his life.

One of the wonderful things about being local, of course, is that it gives a farmer that steady, secure place to weed carrots or kale or cabbage, and thus to make a local living. Lest we get too local, however (or even – gasp! – provincial), we can always count on all the fine people who enjoy our produce to get us global.

For example, there was our CSA member from Australia, who, as we toured the garden one year, said, “Ooo, is that silver beet?”

I hesitated, trying to summon up my knowledgeable local farmer persona.

Finally I answered. “Mmm,” I said, knowledgeably. “Now which one of these vegetables might you be talking about?”

The member laughed, and pointed to the Swiss Chard.

“Oh, yes!” I said, “Silvah beet! We have lots of silvah beet!” saying it just like she did, in her cool Australian way. Then we moved on to the Capsicums, hot, the Capsicums, sweet, and the Capsicums, green (peppers, that would be). Next was the marrow, which is either similar to or identical with zucchini, I was never quite sure.

Another year we had the pleasure of having a father and his adult daughter, originally from Korea, picking peas in our garden. The father was eagerly filling his bag with snow peas; the daughter kept saying, “Here, try these,” as she picked sugar snap peas from the next row over.

The father shook his head. “Look at these snow peas!”

“These are really good, Dad,” the daughter tried again. “Try these.”

The father sighed a little, and took a sugar snap pea. He munched it. “Ah,” he said, to his daughter. “Why don't we know these?”

He smiled. She smiled. He moved on over to the sugar snap pea row.

Then, too, my fellow farmer is always on the alert for interesting seeds from other countries, either through seed catalogs, or through people's travels. One member brings us cabbage and squash seed when he visits his home country of Belgium. A Portuguese friend brings us kale seed, and a Portuguese tomato, and a big long squash-like thing, to grow. We've tried holy basil from a friend in India, and an Estonian tomato from another member's family in that country.

Just this year, my fellow found a fuzzy pale green Italian cucumber in a catalog. It grows in a football shape, and every other day we'd check to see if it was ready to pick.

“Is it ready? Do we pick it?” I would ask.

My knowledgeable local farmer fellow shrugged. “I don't know. It's getting pretty big. Yeah! Let's pick it!”

We picked it, and then we looked at it. It sure was hairy, and funny-shaped. Then my fellow had the brilliant idea to ask one of our new members about the cucumber. “He's Italian! His name is Domenico! He'll know if it's ready!” said my fellow.

“He might know,” I said doubtfully. “It doesn't look much like a cucumber.”

And then the sweet end of the story: my fellow shows the cucumber to Dominic (Domenico!) “Oh, oh!” he exclaims. “I haven't seen one of these in thirty years! My father used to grow them, in Italy!”

That night we receive an email, a picture of Domenico's supper: an heirloom tomato and Italian cucumber salad. “Grazie! It doesn't get any better than this!” says the message.

We local-global farmers agree, wholeheartedly.

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, Sept 30-Oct 6, 2015