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Faster, Faster!

July 13, 2022

Farmer Peter is an ultra-runner. That is, he runs long-distance races up to 240 miles...and no, 240 is not a typo. This summer, thanks to Peter, Faster, faster! has become the motto. With so much happening all at once—planting, weeding, harvesting, marketing—it’s not an unreasonable demand. Make hay while the sun shines is an old-fashioned version of the same idea. But the phrase can also mean different things, depending on the context and the person saying it. Said at the beginning of a busy day, Faster, faster! means “Let’s go!” Said in the middle of a tough job, it means “Keep going!” Said in clipped tones when things get tense, it means “Back off!” Said at the end of a long day, it means “Good job!” Not every job requires ultra speed, and you need to respect the limits of time and the human body (ultra or not). But if any month deserves the motto Faster, faster!, it's July.
We’re more than halfway through garlic harvest, a job that is both fast and slow. Fresh garlic can be eaten immediately, but for long-term storage it must be cured. Seems like we never do it the same way twice. From 2008—2016, we hung bunches in the rafters of the Williams Barn of the Old Bethpage Village. When we lost access to the barn, we hung bunches in the rafters behind the Tin House. When we ran out of rafters, we cut the stalks to 12” and stacked them single-layer in crates. Last year, using just 2x4s, Peter built a garlic wall in the greenhouse. Then last winter, I sat for a 3-hour phone consultation with Ed Fraser of Fraser’s Garlic Farm in upstate, NY. On the topic of curing, I learned that garlic can cure much faster than we realized—10-14 days, rather than 2-3 months—in the right environment (90-105°, dark, and well-ventilated). It also really, really helps to wipe away the soil clinging to the roots, as soil retains moisture. So the 2022 routine goes something like this:

1. Cut the tops in the field to 6-8” with the flail mower.
2. Loosen the roots with the undercutter, a tractor-drawn implement that cuts under the roots.
3. Pull bulbs by hand, load into crates, and drive back to Tin House (Faster, faster!).
4. Let crates sit 1-2 days.
5. Wipe each bulb by hand.
6. Deliver bulbs to greenhouse, sort for seed, & label.
A huge bottleneck arises at Step #5, and if I didn’t have such a big pool of staff and volunteers to call upon, I’d probably abandon it entirely. But last week, with the help of over a dozen people, spread over the course of several days, we cleaned thousands of bulbs. This week we’ll do it again. Is Step #5 worth it? Based on what I’m seeing in the greenhouse, the answer is an affirmative yes! Bulbs that are now one week into the curing process are clean with tight white skins, far better than what I’ve seen in the past (which was still pretty good). Does this mean we’ve found a system we’ll finally stick with? Too soon to say. For now, we’re just happy the 2022 harvest is looking so good.
We’re also celebrating the first harvest from our new blueberry bushes. These bushes are five years in the making. The first bushes were planted in Pond Field, the low-lying field easy walking distance to the Tin House. But the soil was heavy and the berries didn’t thrive, so eight years later, we began the process of transitioning to a new site. In 2017, we broke ground in Chapel Field and amended the soil with sulfur and woodchips to lower the pH. In 2018, when the pH still wasn’t right, we postponed planting and continued amending the soil. In 2019, we planted new bushes. That year, and for the next two years, we plucked all the flowers so the young plants could focus on root development. Finally, this year, it was time to let the CSA members in.
But not before setting up the bird nets. Birds are voracious berry eaters, and without nets, you could lose half the crop—or more! For years we used cheap vineyard netting—transparent nylon that snags on everything, including birds. Determined to do better this time, I purchased new nets whose weave and bright green color are less susceptible to snagging. The nets are manufactured in 100’ lengths, but our beds are 130’, so when the time came to cut and weave pieces together, I called Ann Holdgruen, our Tuesday CSA pickup host. Ann is also a 3-time Emmy award-winning puppet builder, and when I say puppet, I’m talking Kermit, Big Bird. Needless to say, she did a fine job on our humble nets. Now the nets are up, the pickers are picking, and Blueberries 2.0 has officially launched.

Some rain would be nice; it’s been over two weeks since we had a drop. The first dry week didn’t trouble us, as our drought-sensitive crops have adequate irrigation. Into the second week, however, with no rain on the horizon, we because to get nervous. That’s because we have yet another experiment underway—testing the limits of how much irrigation we can do without. In view of our heavy soil, the hassle of irrigation, and the fact that water is a precious resource, it seemed like a worthwhile experiment, so we skipped laying lines on the potatoes and sweet potatoes. Potatoes were an easy choice because 1) they do most of their growing May thru July, when the soil has plenty of moisture, and 2) we mulch the plants with leaves, further contributing to moisture retention. Sweet potatoes were a less obvious choice, but once they get past the establishment phase in June, they grow like wildfire. Had we known there'd be a drought, we probably would have shelved this experiment for another year. At this point, it’s too late to lay lines on the potatoes, and it wouldn’t do much good anyway—some varieties have already started to die back, according to their normal schedule. But it’s not too late for the sweet potatoes, which have yet to fully vine out. As I sit at home writing this newsletter, the crew is hustling to get a bunch of critical tasks knocked off the list (Faster, faster!) so they can get irrigation lines onto the sweet potatoes. Even if storm clouds roll in tonight and we end up not needing the lines, we’ll feel better knowing they’re there.

And with that, I’m off to join them. Faster, faster!

Thanks for reading.


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