We’re still drying out from our 4th rainy weekend in a row. Our Saturday CSA members and farm stand customers just can’t catch a break! At least the recent rain was light—other weekends have been downright torrential. If you came with boots and an umbrella, as many of our members did, last Saturday was as good as any to venture out into the fields. Dozens picked end-of-season tomatoes like they were going out of style, which they kind of are. Others harvested herbs and flowers, though the beds are weedy, past peak, or both. Kudos to them for their determination!
In the Tin House, our crew kept boredom at bay by cleaning garlic, John lightened the mood with his ukelele, and Dan worked the crowd with treats from the toaster oven. You don't know how good an onion, fig, or sweet potato can be until it's served hot on a cold, rainy day. Perspective is everything.
The weekday weather, by contrast, has been lovely—and perfect for getting things done. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, while the fields are drying out, we harvest beets, radishes, fennel, and celeriac by hand and chip away at the monumental task of thinning the strawberries. By late-Wednesday/Thursday, the fields are dry enough to dig potatoes with the tractor, and we dig anywhere from 2–5 beds, or 300–1,500 lbs., depending on whether or not we’ve got a place to store it all. We got very lucky two weeks ago, when we managed clear the last 5 beds from Lower Crooked, our wettest field, just ahead of 6” of rain. The field hasn't fully dried out since, but I did manage to get a cover crop of oats and winter peas seeded last week. Now the beds are covered with a brilliant blanket of chartreuse. The cover crop will help hold the soil in place though future downpours, build organic matter to replace what was lost to erosion, and officially put the field to rest for the winter.
Back to strawberry thinning. To call the job monumental is to put it mildly. In truth, it’s a tedious, counterintuitive slog that often feels endless. In May, we planted bare root crowns in rows, spacing them 12-15” apart. Over the next few weeks, the field remained naked while the roots took hold. By early June, the crowns were firmly rooted and sprouting new leaves. By late June, the plants were flowering, though we plucked the flowers to redirect energy back towards the roots and leaves. By July, the rows had filled in with runners and their daughter plants, the weeds had been cultivated several times, and we could forget about the plants—for a while. When October rolled around, it was time to reckon with a season’s worth of growth. The lush beds that look beautiful from afar are actually much too dense for their own good—like people, plants cannot thrive in overcrowded conditions. So two weeks ago, we began thinning the beds by as much as 50-75%, a counterintuitive task that always leaves things looking worse than when we started. The job is painstakingly slow; at best, a crew of 3 can cover 75 feet in an hour, but we have a total of 800 feet to be thinned, and sometimes just a crew of 1. But we keep our eyes on the prize—a bumper crop of strawberries in June. At this point, the job is three-quarters complete, and we hope to finish this week.
Three weeks ago, we finally broke ground in New Pond Field. This is the first time we’ve opened a new field since 2012, and neither Dan nor I can recall the exact details of how we did it at the time. Most farmers will use a plow to open a sod-covered field, but we didn’t own a plow in 2012; our most aggressive implement back then was a disk harrow, which cuts slits through the soil. A plow, on the other hand, will flip a foot’s worth of topsoil upside down. It’s as disruptive as the no-till acolytes say, dislocating billions microbes from their preferred place in the soil strata, but it gets the job done faster than any other implement. Whatever our reasons for not plowing in 2012, we decided to do it this fall. I have high hopes for getting a winter cover crop of triticale, winter peas, and hairy vetch seeded, and for that to happen, the ground must be ready by mid-November at the latest. So we sprang for a plow ($800), hitched it to Big Blue, and started plowing. It felt transgressive—most of the time, we’re trying to reduce our tillage—but even in this transgressive task, we aimed to be conservative. Rather than plow the whole field, Dan only plowed strips, so that the tires wouldn’t compact the new furrows mere minutes after opening them. Then he let the field rest for a week before switching over to the disk harrow. Was this the right approach? Who’s to say? If we thought plowing would become part of our regular repertoire, we'd take the time to consult other farmers and educate ourselves on best practices, but for us, this is a one-shot deal. We simply want to get the field opened, get a cover crop seeded, and go back to our normal low-till routine. Fortunately, we’re well on our way. The sod is dying back nicely, and a mid-November seeding doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
For me, October is one of the most satisfying times of the year. The hardest jobs are in the rearview, the most celebratory times are on the horizon, and the weather is still great. But like so many people, my heart has been heavy with the events of the past month. The bus accident involving the Farmingdale Marching Band in September hit close to home. Many of our CSA members and farm stand customers are from Farmingdale, and their loss feels very much like our own. As I pass the green ribbons on Main Street on my way to and from the farm each day, I always feel a pang. Great teachers are worth their weight in gold, and the loss of Ms. Pellettiere and Ms. Ferrari is a terrible one. Our hearts continue to extend to the entire Farmingdale community.
And now, as the world watches the unthinkable happen in Israel and Gaza, my heart breaks further. Here’s where I could—and would—turn my back on it all, and lose myself in the quiet and constructive work of farming, except for this: in the 17 years we’ve been in business, we’ve nurtured a community deeply attached to this land, and right now, members of that community are experiencing unspeakable pain. So in this moment of rage, fear, and despair, I would encourage anyone who needs it to seek whatever solace they can find in the farm. A walk through the fields may not seem like much, but it does no harm, and in this moment, that's nothing to dismiss. It’s the least we can offer, and we offer it gladly.