Carry the Weight
by Caroline Fanning
September 10, 2020
It’s that time of year when things start getting crowded in and around the Tin House. The wash station is jam-packed with onions, the exterior walk-in cooler is filling with potatoes, winter squash is everywhere, and that’s not a quarter of the total haul. When I consider the massive transfer of food that still lies ahead, I fantasize about an eruption of vegetables, in which crops launched into the air shake free of dirt and debris and then miraculously land in their designated bins, ready for storage, Mary Poppins style. In reality, the crew trudges out, like an army of ants, ready to carry the weight. We have a tractor-drawn digger to draw the potatoes and sweet potatoes to the soil surface, but the crew must collect each and every potato by hand. Ditto with the winter squash—each fruit is clipped from its vine and loaded into bins by hand. Years ago, when our backs were younger, our harvests lighter, and our obsession with soil compaction borderline manic, we’d carry our full bins to the edge of the field, where they would be loaded onto the truck. Nowadays, we leave our bins in the field and let Peter see how fast he can load the truck as it rolls by. As we like to remind him, getting paid to lift weights is better than paying Tough Mudder or Spartan for the privilege.
June was dry, but August and September have been very, very wet. Fortunately, we’ve had enough indoor work to keep us busy. We spent one entire Friday clipping, sorting, and storing garlic, which is more complicated than it sounds. First we look for mold spores in the stem, which indicates a shorter shelf-life. Bulbs with spores are marked “First Out” for immediate distribution, the others move ahead to the second sort. Next we look for size—small or large. Small bulbs have the longest shelf life, so we pack those away as our “Winter Supply.” The large bulbs move along to the third and final sort—clove count, or seed supply. Bulbs with four cloves or fewer are marked “Fall CSA”, which simply means after “First Out.” Bulbs with five cloves or more are reserved for seed. (Technical point: When growers refer to seed garlic, they’re referring to cloves used for propagation, but a clove of garlic is actually a clone, not a true seed.) We’ve been saving our own seed since 2007, and until last year, that generally meant saving our biggest bulbs. In recent years, however, I’ve been picking the brains of regional garlic gurus, exploring how we can
improve our seed stock. This led to the idea of adding the final sort for clove count. Traditional garlic wisdom holds that big bulbs produce big bulbs, but what’s lesser known is that small cloves can also produce big bulbs, provided they come from big bulbs. Therefore, from a planting perspective, a 3 oz. bulb of garlic with 6 cloves is 50% more valuable than a 3 oz. bulb of garlic with 4 cloves. Adding the final sort for clove count seems obvious in retrospect, but it’s still an extra step. People often wonder why seed garlic is so much more expensive than table garlic, and this is why. In terms of how it’s grown, seed garlic is no different; it’s the post-harvest selection for top quality that earns seed garlic its premium price.
The transition into fall is normally a celebratory time for us, and after another hot, humid, laborious summer, we definitely want to kick back and celebrate the fruits of our labor. But with the pandemic still defining so much of everyday life, our drive to celebrate has been muted. The back-to-school experience for most families has ranged from challenging to nightmarish, as Dan and I can attest. Plus, while the farm crew may welcome winter as a reprieve from hard work, we understand that others may dread it as a season of heightened risk. It’s hard to imagine what Thanksgiving will look like this year, given what people have been through and how much still lies ahead. In that regard, our best bet is to take it one day at a time. Harvesting a whole field of potatoes is daunting, but one bed at a time is doable. It’s still too early to declare victory over COVID or the 2020 season, but we can definitely celebrate the small victories that draw us closer to our final goal.