I’m a huge fan of Ben Hartman, author of The Lean Farm Guide to Growing Vegetables. On the topic of ordering seeds, he writes that 15% of a grower’s order should include new/experimental varieties. Anything less, and you’re probably missing out on innovative developments; anything more, and you’re probably experimenting too much. The same general idea—if not the specific percentage—applies to farming as a whole. If you’re unwilling to try new tools and techniques, you’ll get stuck in your ways and never improve. But if you experiment too much at once, you could jeopardize the whole operation. So it’s important to choose your experiments wisely.
This year, we’ve watched three experiments unfold. The first involves the summer squash, one of the few crops for which we haven’t found a satisfying method of cultivation (i.e. weeding). To accommodate the enormous size of the mature plants, we space our rows 9 feet apart—a big space to keep weed-free while you’re waiting for the plants to fill in. We’ve tried various cultivation methods over the years, to varying degrees of success. So last fall, following the lead of several other farms, I seeded winter rye in the 2022 squash field. Winter rye puts on tremendous growth in the spring, and the plan was to crimp—or bend—the rye when it flowers in May. If all goes well, crimping should terminate (i.e. kill) the rye; if you’re not sure, you can throw on a tarp for good measure. Once the terminated rye is flat on the ground, you’re left with a uniform field of straw mulch into which you can directly plant the squash. In our case, seeding the rye was easy, watching it grow was fun, but crimping was where we got off the rails. To bend the stalks, Dan and I used a 5’ piece of angle iron to press into the rye, taking rhythmic steps up and down field. It’s hard to explain, but the video above gives the basic idea. It was an intense workout, and the end the results looked good—the entire field laying flat—but the ground was uneven beneath our feet, and we didn’t get the sense that the angle iron had crimped aggressively or uniformly enough. Sure enough, the next day, only the stalks that had been directly beneath our feet were laying flat. Two days later, when we returned to lay a tarp, the entire field was standing upright. Game over. In theory, we could have tried again, but we were out of time, out of energy, and willing to save the lessons learned for next year.
The second experiment involves tomatoes, vining plants that must be trellised to achieve their optimal potential. In our current system, we run string up and down the rows when the plants are 12” high, weaving it around the posts installed every 4-5 plants. Then we keep stringing for every 8-12” of growth. This year, however, on 2 of our 9 rows, we’re training each plant along 1-2 strings suspended from above. This method will involve less stringing overall, but lots of pruning, which should, in theory, yield better quality fruit. I got the idea while attending a field day at the Jamesport Farmstead last August; they strung their cherry tomatoes this way, and the rows looked great. So I pitched the project into Peter’s lap last winter (Figure it out, was what I told him) and he scored a victory in designing a trellis system based on materials we already have in abundance—rebar and T-posts. When the time came to attach the plants to the strings, however, he wasn’t sure which of the various methods to try. So I reached out to Lisa Chalif, who (follow me here) worked with us in 2019, worked at the Jamesport Farmstead from 2020–2021, and who now works with Steve Cecchini (yes, our own Farmer Steve) at the Bayard Cutting Arboretum CSA. When Lisa worked at Restoration Farm, she was eager to learn how to string tomatoes. Though I’m somewhat possessive of the job, I agreed to teach her. So it felt rather karmic that, 3 years later, she’d return to teach me and Peter how they did it at Jamesport. Now all of the plants are attached and ready to climb. So far so good for Experiment #2.
Last but not least, experimental garlic. Last summer, we harvested softneck garlic for the first time. Coming out of the fields, it was nothing to rave about. Softneck is typically smaller than hardneck, but ours was especially small because we’d mulched too heavily the previous fall. Another lesson learned. But despite its small size, the softneck achieved what we were hoping for—a longer shelf life than the hardneck. Ordinarily, hardneck doesn’t store past March, which leaves a 2-3-month gap in the garlic calendar (harvests begin late June). The softneck, by contrast, was still going strong in April, and just two weeks ago, as I prepared to sauté a batch of spinach, I noticed a pattern. Many of the cloves were beginning to sprout, and each bulb had one moldy clove, but never more than one—the sacrificial clove, it seemed. The adjacent cloves, sprouted or not, were fine, and I managed to secure plenty of garlic for my spinach. How to market sprouted garlic with moldy cloves is a challenge for another day. For now, I’m savoring the secret victory of Experiment #3.
And in the midst of all these experiments, the summer solstice is bearing down on us like a freight train. This past week we were practically flying around the farm, getting things done—planting winter squash and sweet potatoes; weeding, pruning, and stringing tomatoes; mulching potatoes; seeding sunflowers, carrots, parsnips, and beans; harvesting for the weekly CSA pickups and farm stand. So much frenetic work would be notable on its own, but I’ve been feeling particularly self-aware, due to the many people passing through the OBVR park. Hundreds of school kids. Reenactors from the Museum of American Armor. A film crew building a set on the other side of the Pond Field fence. I wonder if they anticipated how much we farmers would change the landscape in a matter of hours, and to what effect. It struck me that what sets us apart from the other entities operating on this park is that we’re not reimagining, reenacting, or recreating anything. Rather, we’re engaging with the landscape to produce something tangible and essential—food. What’s more, we invite our CSA community to do it with us—to pick their own berries, to weed with us on volunteer days, to be more than spectators to a performance. At times it feels as though our claim to the land is tenuous, as though WWII tanks and HBO executives could squeeze us out at any minute. But farmers are doggedly persistent—our crops demand nothing less. When the July heat arrives and the spectators go home, we’ll still be here, as we were throughout the pandemic. And we keep the faith that if we plant enough strawberries and sunflowers, our community will be out here with us.
Final word from me: this newsletter would be much improved by guest contributors. Got an idea? Send it along! For now, here’s Farmer Dan with his own reflections on the summer solstice.
Thanks for reading!
The obvious question I’m asked when members and farm stand customers return for the first CSA pickup or farm stand is “How’s the farm?” Love the concern and the idea that I can be the voice for such a vibrant organism. “Busy” is the simple answer. But this is June, the culmination of planting, weeding, harvesting, and everything else that goes into keeping the farm going, so “busy” doesn’t tell the whole story. The summer solstice gives us the longest stretch of daylight, which enables us to accomplish all things, including the huge plantings that sustain us through the winter. “Winter?” you say. Yes, winter. Now is when we plant sweet potatoes and winter squash, while also attending to the harvests of spring and summer crops. When you think of the lag affect that exists with the warming the of ocean or the soil—that the hottest waters and days are 3 weeks behind the longest days—once again we are humbled by the rhythm of Mother Nature which leads us in the dance of local, seasonal, sustainable, even regenerative eaters and growers. We often reference the Wendell Berry quote hanging in the Tin House—Eating is an agricultural act. So you, my friends, are also the voice of this vibrant organism, which humbles and enlivens us. And now that you’ve had a pickup, or bought a bok choy, or maybe—hopefully—walked the fields, I ask you “How is the farm?” I’d love it if you reached out to me personally to share your answers.