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Oh Deer!

Hot and dry, that’s how it’s been.
Extreme heat is nothing new, but the past few weeks have shown us how little experience we have with drought. The last time we went this long without adequate rain was in 2016, when each tomato harvest was an exercise in heartbreak—50-75% had to be discarded due to bird/rodent damage. When animals can’t find water in the wild, they’ll find it in our fields, and who can blame them? Things aren’t that bad in the tomatoes yet, but we’ve noticed many signs of wildlife distress. Robins swooping through blackberries they’d normally ignore. Geese from the Old Bethpage Village mowing down lettuce mix at the Tin House. Raccoons scavenging immature popcorn. The cash crops, for the most part, are hanging tough, thanks to irrigation and mulch, but we could use some serious rain. And soon.

Despite the heat and the drought, our thoughts are now turning to winter…or at least, to winter storage crops. Last week we harvested the shallots and spaghetti squash. This week we harvested yellow storage onions. If there’s a silver lining to the drought, it’s optimal curing conditions. Whereas in a typically humid year, we can expect a 5-10% loss in onions and a 10-15% loss in shallots, this year I’m hoping for less than a 5% loss in both. As Peter and I were harvesting onions yesterday, our conversation went something like this:
Caroline: The onions are curing well in the field.
Peter: Yeah, but they’re small. Smaller than usual.
Caroline: Small onions usually store better anyway.
Peter: Why is that?

Indeed, why is that? I don’t know, but it’s the kind of correlation/causation question that gets curious people hooked on farming. Do smaller-than-average yields lend themselves to better-than-average storage? If so, does the farmer always break even? And if so, does that mean there is a benevolent Being looking after us? I don’t know, but I love the questions, which is why I love farming.

But the love fest must wait. There’s a serious matter to address, and we’ve avoided it as long as we can. Deer.
A deer population is establishing itself at the Old Bethpage Village Restoration, and in nearby parts of Nassau County. We’ve had occasional sightings for years—and occasional damage—but last year a male-female pair was regularly seen on the property. So I wasn’t at all surprised to see a doe and two fawns munching on beet greens last month. And every morning since then, we've found new footprints in the field—and new damage. Indeed, as I sit at home writing this newsletter, Peter is texting me updates on damage to our long-overdue, eagerly-anticipated lettuce.

Dan and I have been watching the situation unfold for years, hoping for some breakthrough, but at this stage in the game, with real losses on the table, we can’t wait any longer. Losing 20 heads of lettuce in a night is bad; knowing we’ll lose 20 more the next night is worse. Having to explain those losses—and our powerlessness against them—to the CSA members who already paid for the lettuce is as bad as it gets. Personally, it’s more stress than I can bear.

How to control the population is a big-picture question for Nassau County and the D.E.C., but we need to protect our crops now. Deer fencing seems our best/only option; indeed, it’s a fact of life for Suffolk County farms. We were resistant to the idea in the past because 1) fencing is expensive, 2) our patchwork of fields, woods, and roads would be difficult to fence, and 3) fencing would undermine the 19th century ambiance of the Old Bethpage Village Restoration. But now that the writing on the wall is clear—deer have become an existential threat—our calculus has changed.

We'll need Nassau County’s permission for the installation, but the funding must come from us. And here’s where I return to a previous sticking point. If you don’t own the land, or even have a lease—which Dan and I don’t—capital improvements don’t make a lot of sense. Deer fencing will benefit Restoration Farm decades into the future, but it could be a net loss to Dan and myself. Given that we already spent $50K in personal savings to launch the farm in 2007, this is a hard pill to swallow.

So… as we seek estimates from fence installers and consider how to get the green light from Nassau County, we’re also preparing to ask for funding from the many people who love and benefit from the farm. What does it mean to be a community farm on public land? This is a question that’s consumed me since the pandemic. And it could be that deer fencing is the issue that pushes the Restoration Farm community to figure it out.

Stay tuned.


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