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Let the New Year Roll

January 20, 2021

So apparently this pandemic is putting otherwise even-keeled people at risk of going completely bonkers—from boredom, from claustrophobia, from too-much-togetherness, you name it. I heard about the phenomenon last spring, and I empathized with those suffering, but I didn’t feel it myself. Covid notwithstanding, work at the farm remained business as usual, and own my risk factor was neither up nor down. Fast forward to January, and it’s a different story. After a nothing burger of a holiday season, and a back-to-school send-off that wasn’t, I get it. I’m missing all the rituals that make winter the delightful season it normally is—the annual family ski trip, catching up with fellow growers at the NOFA conference, Friday night potlucks with our crew, quiet weekday mornings, sans kids, to plot the season ahead. But it could be worse. I have my health and I have my livelihood, and that makes me luckier than most. So let’s carry on.

Last week I completed the season’s seed order, a winter ritual that has undergone many changes over time. At its best, years ago, we had a crew of eight or more crowded around my dining room table, debating the merits of purple carrots or striped zucchini, for hours and hours on end. These sessions usually concluded with an epic potluck lunch. At its least glamorous, I tackled the job alone, not exactly surprised that in the same amount of time it took eight people to get through the Cs—cabbage, carrots, cucumbers—I could get through half the alphabet. The lunches, however, were far less memorable.

But no matter the crew, at the end, there was always a long spreadsheet to guide my annual call to the seed companies. This year, the crew consisted of Steve, Peter, and myself. Instead of starting with the As, we chose to limit our focus to the crops whose 2020 performance seemed less than stellar, and for which new varieties might make a difference. For lettuce, we added four new varieties, and we resolved to label each succession faithfully (easier said than done). For tomatoes, we dropped some low-yielding heirlooms in favor of higher-yielding hybrids. And for potatoes, we added several yellow varieties, at the expense of the reds and purples, because that’s what our customers seem to want. When the time came to call the seed companies, I was excited about our choices. What I wasn’t prepared for were shipping delays, backorders, limited quantities, and out-of-stock items. After my initial surprise, I realized it actually makes sense. It takes months, if not years, to cultivate a crop of seeds, so the seed companies would not have had enough time to adapt to the home gardening surge that began last spring. In fact, I’ll bet they’re agonizing over how much adjustment is even worth it, given that much of the surge could still be a flash in the pan. I don’t envy the balance they must strike as they manage limited inventories and the needs of their loyal customers. I am, however, grateful for their perennially positive customer service. When I’ve encountered one out-of-stock item too many, a friendly operator makes all the difference.

The farm itself continues to provide a respite from pandemic fatigue. We’ve already held one winter farm stand, and we have more scheduled in the upcoming weeks. I’ve also begun leading a series of winter walks through the fields where, contrary to what you might expect, there’s plenty to see. Observing the fields in the summer is like observing someone in their best evening wear, but observing in the fields in winter is like observing someone in their underwear. That is to say, both have their charms. The first walk, back in December, was informal and low-key, with only eight people in attendance. We surveyed the cover crop, visited the tractor implements, and discussed tillage reduction techniques. The second walk, in early January, drew 20-30 people, but it was still very informal, and followed much of the same path. Both walks made it all the way to Glenn’s orchard and Scheck Field (aka the garlic field), at the other end of the Old Bethpage Village Restoration. These fields are ordinarily off-limits to our visitors, because we don’t want to give the impression that our guests are trespassing through the museum. So it was nice, for a change, to show folks the far-flung fields that have taken on a near-mythical aura.

Unfortunately, the second walk probably won’t be remembered for cover crop or the orchard. Instead, it’ll be remembered for the small plane that crashed before our very eyes. We had almost returned to the Tin House when we heard a plane flying low over the dump across the street. We watched in disbelief as it turned sideways, and we heard the thud of the impact. Members of our group called 911 while others fanned out to search for the downed plane. We found it straddled on a fence just as two Nassau County police officers arrived. One officer passed a fire extinguisher to Patrick, a member of our group, who sprayed the smoking engine. The pilot was conscious and communicating, but pinned inside the plane. At this point, we simply had to wait for additional emergency workers. It probably took minutes, but it felt like hours. Eventually they did arrive, and our group reassembled back on our side of the street. We said a muted goodbye. Afterwards, I learned that the pilot was in stable condition. We wish him a complete recovery, and I hope that the next winter walk is a little less exciting.


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