January Food for Thought
January may seem like an odd time to obsess over harvesting garlic, but here I am, doing exactly that. Dan, Steve, Peter, Glenn, the kids, and I just spent four days at the NOFA-NY winter conference in Saratoga, and while there were many great takeaways, garlic is front and center. Ever since losing access to the big Williams barn, I’ve questioned how growers with limited space cure and store a large crop. After a three-hour workshop devoted to the topic, I learned that our current method of hanging bunches, while both effective and visually striking, is not the only way to do it. Many successful growers mow the tops immediately before harvest, leaving 8” of stalk. Then they harvest the bulbs and spread them out wherever they can provide enough air circulation to dry down the necks. Not only is this method equally effective and less labor-intensive, it also allows for a more efficient use of space. In other words, I’d be a chump not to try it, therefore, I will.
I also gleaned some seed saving advice from organic gurus Karl Hammer, from the Vermont Compost Company, and Jean-Paul Courtens, from Roxbury Farm. After years of saving our own garlic seed, our cloves have evolved into grape-sized giants—wonderful for cooks, but problematic on the seed saving end. Nowadays, our average bulb yields four big cloves, which means at least 25% of the harvest must be reserved for seed. Jean-Paul advised that when selecting for seed, I prioritize bulbs with higher clove counts, rather than focus on bulb size alone. The hope is that by achieving a higher clove-per-bulb ratio, I’ll end up needing to reserve less for seed. Karl took it a step further and explained his method of
planting garlic bulbils, the tiny topsets sheathed in the scape. While Karl’s method involves reducing, if not forgoing, a scape harvest, it also means he can keep his entire garlic harvest for market. Plus, planting bulbils can revitalize the seed strain and inhibit the spread of soil-borne diseases. It’s intriguing enough to try, but uncommon enough to warrant caution. This year’s crop has already been planted, but I’ve decided that come July, I’ll collect some bulbils to plant in November.
The theme of this year’s conference was Climate of Change, a fun little play on words. That said, climate change is no joke, and there was a palpable sense of anxiety among attendees about what the future of farming holds. Turns out I wasn’t the only one to have crops swept away by last summer's torrential rain. I attended two workshops that addressed how vegetable farmers are adapting to extreme weather, and no-till farming was a dominant theme. The no-till principle is simple—by shielding the soil from mechanical disturbance (plows, cultivators, etc.), growers can build organic matter,
sequester carbon, and ultimately create beds that are better able to withstand weather extremes. Years ago, no-till was widely understood as a laudable goal for gardeners but impractical for commercial farmers, given its rejection of tractors. In recent years, however, more small-scale farms (1-4 acres) are demonstrating productivity and profitability using various no-till systems, and people are paying attention, myself included. With five acres in cultivation, we’re heavily invested in our three tractors, yet still small enough to entertain some no-till ideas. So, as a start, I’ve proposed transitioning one of our smaller fields into permanent raised beds, with the goal of eventually transitioning to no-till. If we like what we see, we’ll consider transitioning more fields.
Another appealing workshop topic was winter crops—varieties, post-harvest handling, storage, etc. At times I fell a gnawing envy, listening to other growers describe their operations. Many continue harvesting through the winter in high tunnels (tall, unheated greenhouses); many have heated wash/pack rooms that allow them to wash even when it’s subzero outside; many have multiple walk-in coolers, allowing them to target their temperature and humidity settings to the specific vegetables inside. Investing in these types of infrastructure would be a no-brainer if we owned the land, but we don’t. We don’t even have a formal lease, just a five-year permit than offers the barest of protections. What we do have, however, are an insulated room with an air conditioner, an additional, stand-alone walk-in cooler, and a portable root washer. After allowing myself a brief period of self-pity, I resolved to make the most of the infrastructure we have. Fortunately, there’s a lot we can do to make it better.
One final conference highlight—this year the crew drove up a day early so we could attend an all-day draft horse workshop. Six teamsters from several farms gathered at Featherbed Lane Farm in Ballston Spa, NY, to walk us through the steps of cleaning hooves, hitching harnesses, driving a single horse, and driving a team. Even the kids got to try! Using draft power is a longstanding dream of Dan’s. In fact, fifteen years ago, when the Old Bethpage Village Restoration still yoked oxen, he volunteered specifically to learn about it. While the obstacles to introducing draft at Restoration Farm are daunting, bringing the family and crew to the workshop was Dan’s way of keeping the dream alive.