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Dance Like a Monkey

Late-October marks the return to watching overnight lows like a hawk. We had our first frost last weekend, but we were more or less prepared. Lisa, Michael, and I spent Friday morning harvesting greens and peppers for the Saturday pickup, and in the afternoon, we shifted the last of the sweet potatoes to the safety of “The Cube,” an insulated, unplugged walk-in that serves as our root cellar. At 7am Saturday morning, I drove out to the fields to check on the arugula and broccoli raab, tender greens I would have harvested the day before, had time allowed. From a distance, in the early morning darkness, the greens seemed fine. A closer inspection, however, revealed the telltale signs of frost—a darkening of the arugula leaves, a skim of white in the centers of the lettuce. These greens would bounce back, I believed, but not in time for that morning’s pickup. So I hopped back in the truck and returned to the Tin House, grateful for what we’d accomplished the day before. Along with the tomatoes, early morning harvests are now a thing of the past.

There are harder frosts to come, and the fields are still full of greens—lettuce, escarole, dandelion, etc. These late plantings are a sort of Hail Mary pass, i.e. it would be great if they make it to Thanksgiving, but I’m not betting the farm on it. I can help the odds by laying on row cover, but that job will have to wait until after we’ve secured the crops that we are betting on—the storage crops planted specifically, as their name suggests, for storage. Just two weeks ago, in addition to the sweet potatoes curing in the greenhouses at the farm, we had hundreds of pounds of winter squash curing on the racks behind the Tin House, as well as in our Amityville greenhouses. We still have crates of onions to trim. Most of the cabbage and celeriac are still in the field. If I could count on a steady, predictable glide into winter, I could fool myself into thinking we still have plenty of time, but I’m not counting on it. We could get nailed with another sudden freeze like the one we had last Thanksgiving, when the temperature lodged in the high teens for days. We lost a lot of food in the fields, and while we didn’t lose anything at the Tin House, it was only thanks to some major, panicked, last-minute scurrying. After the season we’ve been through, I don’t want to lose anything, and I definitely don’t want to panic. So every day we continue chipping away at the winter harvest, admiring the October leaves as they turn, but not stopping until every last turnip, radish, and cabbage is accounted for.

Post Script

Funny thing about writing a farm newsletter… observations that seem so spot-on one day can be shot full of holes the next. When I began this letter Sunday evening, I’d yet to give the fields a careful, post-frost inspection. While harvesting lettuce Tuesday morning, however, I instantly noticed that the heads hadn’t bounced back to the degree I’d anticipated. This wasn’t a complete game changer, but enough of a curveball that I’d definitely want to bump row cover up on the priorities list. This sort of reshuffling happens all the time, and if farmers seem so rigid and unyielding in their personal interactions, it’s probably because they’re expected to dance like monkeys in the field.

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