Just Keep Planting
November 27, 2020
By this time last year, winter had affirmatively arrived. The ground had frozen solid and all of our winter crops were carefully packed away. Our storage units are nothing fancy or high tech—a cold room with an AC, a walk-in cooler with a fan, and a trailer with a space heater—but they maintained a safe 32°–50° range, which was all we asked. The outside cold, however, complicated winter share pickup preparations. With thousands of pounds of food to distribute, the job of pulling everything out of storage and onto the tables could easily take hours. Ideally, I would start a day or two ahead of time, but with overnight lows dipping into the low twenties—meaning that anything left on the tables overnight would freeze—this was out of the question. So, out of necessity, I would arrive at 5am on pickup days and hit the ground running. Setting up was a four-hour marathon that kept me warm, but it was nerve-wracking to think I wouldn’t finish on time. As with any big event, the key to a successful pickup—especially one with 100+ people—is being completely ready before the first members arrive.
This November, by contrast, has been unseasonably warm, and I can’t say I’m sorry. I’ve been able to leave the winter squash, potatoes, and onions on the tables, which saves a lot of time. Plus, while our crew was careful to harvest all the frost-loving but freeze-intolerant crops before Thanksgiving—cabbage, celeriac, beets, and kohlrabi—we’ve still got two beds of carrots happily anchored in the ground. My grandfather, George Garbarini, fondly remembers the year (somewhere in the 2012-2016 range) when we dug carrots in February, and I recently joked that we may kidnap him from his senior home to relive the memory. Joking aside, I doubt we’ll wait until February, but I do see a Yuletide harvest in our future.
There’s another reason to delay the carrot harvest as long as conditions allow; even with one winter share and two Thanksgiving pickups behind us, our coolers are still jam-packed, i.e. we’re maxed out for space. For this we owe a big round of applause to Steve Cecchini and Peter Notarnicola, our devoted farmers who are wrapping up their sixth and fourth seasons, respectively. Both men were absent for most of 2019, which meant a serious scaling down in the fields, but both were back in the spring, and just in the nick of time. When the pandemic hit and CSA shares started selling fast, I was able to shift into hyper-drive because I had Steve and Peter in my corner. Every season has its motto, and this season’s was Just keep planting! Our March pivot came too late to boost the crops already underway—garlic, onions, and tomatoes—but there was plenty of time to plan for a monster winter harvest. Thanks to Steve and Peter, we
managed to plant, cultivate, and harvest roughly 25% more winter crops than in 2019. Last spring’s experience of empty supermarket shelves was a nightmare I’m sure many people would rather forget, and though I think it would be a mistake to ignore the lesson offered—that our global food supply is more fragile than many people realize—at Thanksgiving, a time meant for channeling gratitude, we can give thanks to the behind-the-scenes farmers who make our local food system as resilient as it is. Steve and Peter, as we gorge on broccoli, hats off to you!
While I’m at it, there’s another player that deserves special recognition. My father-in-law, Big Dan Holmes (a.k.a. Papa), has been the farm stand cashier for years, and he has the uncanny ability to be both front-and-center and behind-the-scenes at the same time. Ask him for cooking tips, and he’ll fool you with, “Don’t ask me, I’m a plumber,” but he knows more than he lets on. Like a good bartender, he can fetch what you need, ring up a sale, or spot trouble before it arrives. Growing food is the obvious center of what we do, but engaging with the public is an equally important part of the job. This year was especially demanding, with so many new people passing through the Tin House, but Papa nailed it with a tough-love style that is welcoming, informative, and firm. In the aftermath of the occasional but inevitable confrontation, he was my go-to person for the all-important question, “Was I too bitchy?” His honest, low-key, and rock-steady presence has been instrumental in keeping our “front of the house” on track, and for that I am deeply grateful. I’m sure his fan club is grateful, too.
Meanwhile, the fields are transitioning into winter dormancy. Ironically or not, this is mainly exhibited in brilliant shades of green. Walk anywhere through the farm, and you will be greeted by cover crop in all stages of growth—tall and floppy, young and stubbly, and everything in between. Just as the mild weather allowed us to push the envelope on late-season plantings of arugula, broccoli, and radishes, it also let us to push the envelope with cover crops. Ordinarily, I aim for October 15 as a final seeding date for oats and winter peas, but this year, I snuck in three “let’s see what happens” seedings, on 10/22, 10/29, and 11/4. The first two germinated within a week, but so far we’ve had no activity from 11/4. Lesson learned. Even if the 11/4 oats do nothing for us this fall, the winter peas will sprout in the late winter (hence the name), and we’ll be happy we snuck them in when the opportunity was there.
Thanks for everything, and just keep planting.