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

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 Tomato Grafting Revolution

One day several years ago my farming fellow came back from his seed-saving group, saying, “Yeah, it was great! There were all these people growing their great great great grandmothers' heirloom open pollinated really rare varieties of corn and beans!”

“What did you say you were growing?” I asked him.

“I said I was grafting tomatoes! They all looked at me like I'm nuts!”

I thought my fellow was a little nuts myself, when he first talked about grafting tomatoes. People graft fruit trees, I said knowingly, not tomatoes.

“Look at this! It's fantastic!” was his answer. He showed a me a video clip of a hand, a razor blade, and two innocent tomato plants, each being sliced in half. Then the bottom of one was stuck to the top of the other, with the help of a silicone clip.

“Isn't that great?” he said. “I can't wait to try this!”

“But why?” I said. “It's so artificial, it's so forced, it's so not sustainable. And it's so not groovy!”

“I know,” he said enthusiastically, “but it doubles production, and the whole greenhouse is full of propane heaters and miles of plastic and irrigation and fans and everything else. It's all crazy and non-groovy. But since we have all these resources concentrated in this one area, we might as well get good production. That's a kind of sustainibility, too. And it's fantaaaastic production! Look at this! The plants are twice as big! Twice as many tomatoes!”

“But do we want twice as many tomatoes?”

“Yes!” said my fellow farmer.

Oh, he does love tomatoes, my fellow. Every year he grows a trillion different varieties, pink, yellow, white, purple, green, black, orange, and even red. He was ecstatic the year we were finally able to put all our tomatoes under cover, thanks to the addition of two new hoophouses. The outside, or “field” tomatoes, tasted mighty good, but they didn't always look so pretty. Now our tomatoes taste and look good, in the highly protected hoophouse environment.

The next big tomato step, after the hoophouse revolution, was the grafting revolution. My fellow plunged in, armed with a razor blade and a little pair of scissors. He sliced and trimmed and clipped, joining a sturdy Central American tomato root, highly tolerant of greenhouse conditions, to whatever heirloom or hybrid variety he was most enamored with at the moment. He tucked the tender grafties into the hospital, a darkened area under one of our propagation tables, for three days, misting them carefully twice a day. Then voila! There emerged the first batch of grafted tomatoes, each little plant either thoroughly dead or amazingly alive.

We transplanted the grafties carefully into our hoophouse beds, and soon they took off, and off, and off. They burst out of their silicone clips and grew and grew, twice the size of their non-grafted neighbors. We were in awe. We gazed high, at the hoophouse trusses, where the tomatoes were curling their leaves and twining their stems. That year was the first that my fellow had to start climbing a ladder to harvest tomatoes.

Ever since, my fellow has grafted, gazed in awe, and climbed the ladder. Over the years, he's worked his way through various grafting errors: plants too little, plants too big, plants in hospital too long, plants in hospital not long enough, plants too wet, plants too dry. Then one year my fellow had another brilliant idea: “Hey! How about grafting some cherry tomatoes?”

“Gee, I don't know,” I answered. “We've got an awful lot of cherry tomatoes already. It takes us three hours at a time, the two of us, just to pick them.”

“I'm going to try, just a couple. It'll be great. The plants will be huge!”

My fellow was right again. The plants were huge. They were monstrous. They were impenetrable. We would tunnel in, trying to reach the trillion before the overripening, the splitting, and then the rotting. We would tunnel in, and come out gasping for air.

“Never again,” I said. “Never again.”

“Never again,” agreed my fellow, “Never again.”

Now we laugh about it, as we spend our companionable three hours picking the lovely non-grafted cherry tomatoes twice a week together.

“Remember that year you grafted the cherry tomatoes?” I say.

“Yeah,” he says. “Hee hee hee. That was a big mistake.”

“Hee hee hee,” I say. “That was funny. Remember how mad I used to get? I'd come out of there with all these leaves and cherry tomatoes caught on my head. I hated wasting all those tomatoes we couldn't reach.”

“Yeah,” he says again. “That makes this kind of picking seem easy, doesn't it?”

“It sure does,” I say.

“But it's a good thing I graft the big tomatoes,” he adds quickly. “Don't you think?”

“I sure do, “ I say. “I guess you're not completely nuts after all. You're more like completely tomatoes!”

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, Aug 31 -- Sept 6, 2016

The Month Of Sighs

July is the month of sighs on our New Hampshire vegetable farm.

Sigh. Spring is over. Spring, when everything is fresh and new and possible, when no big farm disasters have happened yet, when it only takes a warm day after a long winter to have us feeling peppy and excited about a new farming season.

In July, however, we are hot. Very hot. Hot in the greenhouse, hot in the gardens, hot in the hayfield. It is hard to muster up peppy with all that hot, and it's hard to muster up excitement about anything but ice cream and swimming holes, neither of which pursuits seem to get the work done.

Sigh. There sure is a lot of work to do in July. We always say July is the month that crams every farming thing into it. A lot of harvesting. A lot of weeding. A lot of fall planting. A lot of haying. Did I mention a lot of weeding?

As one of our farmer friends said recently, about conversations between farmer-spouses, “In July, we can't talk about whether we'll be farming next year.” He paused. “And we can't talk about divorce, either.” We two farmer-spouses laughed a lot, and knowingly. (At least we were laughing.)

Sigh. The July sigh followed is most often followed by the July phrase: “Gee, I wish we had done that last week.”

Those beets looked pretty good last week. Now they're overrun by weeds. Those tomato plants looked pretty good last week too, and now they're in full flop, desperate for their next clipping up. Those draft horses also looked pretty good in their pasture last week. Now they're looking pretty naughty in a new pasture, otherwise known as our tolerant and forgiving neighbors' lawn, which the horses have taken upon themselves to enjoy, by busting through the pasture fence.

Sigh. The first CSA and Farmers Market harvests are over. The first harvests are greens and salad turnips and kohlrabi and bok choy and strawberries. They are all so delicious, and they are all such short season crops, only a month or less of harvesting. In June, we can finish up a bed of bok choy, and think, “There, got that done for the year!”

But in July, we're picking tomatoes. We're picking zucchini and yellow squash and cucumbers. Of course, these are also marvelous, and very much longed for. Yet once we start picking tomatoes and squash, it means we'll be picking them for the next four long months. We get to know our many tomato and squash rows very, very well.

Sigh. The sparkling clean farm kitchen is no longer sparkling. In June, there's still a hope of sparkle, still an effort made to keep ahead of dirty dishes and cluttered counters.

In July, the dirty dishes multiply almost as fast as the weeds in the garden. The dishes fill the counters, and sometimes even creep on to the floor. There's not much space to cook up a yummy meal, but hey, who needs to cook in July? Let's just slice up a tomato! If we can find a clean knife!

Sigh. Happily, the very last sigh of a July day on the farm is a good sigh, a great sigh, a fantastic sigh: it is the going to bed sigh. There's not much nicer than a good bed after a good day of work in good company, in a good place. (And, of course, with good food to eat!)

Originally published in the Monadnock Shopper News, July 6-July 12, 2016