Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Typical Day (Sort of)

The fact that I haven’t written since July 23 is one small, unfortunate sign of a successful season. When I started out last spring, it seemed too good to be true that I’d be doing markets again on Saturday and Sunday, and that my week would follow the pattern of weeding and planting early in the week, harvesting at the end of the week and doing markets on the weekend. It had been several years since I’d done that. Another sign that this season was a success is that, now it’s hard to imagine NOT doing this. Even with the challenges of a typical day, or the excessive challenges of a more difficult day, I still have enough perspective to appreciate what I’m doing and how I felt in the four years I wasn’t farming.

For some reason, my mind’s been running through one of my last Friday’s of harvest, in Mid-November, before the regular market season ended. Like every morning, that Friday began with me leaving the chickens out around sunrise. Then I wandered around the field for a sense of what I could harvest that day. By November, it’s hard to know ahead of time what will be available because you never know what will survive the nighttime lows. This year, the cold came early and it was mid-October that even frost-hearty crops—such as mustards, arugula, lettuces, turnips and radishes started dying. Muddy Farm is a bit slopey. (I don’t mind that MS word doesn’t recognize slopey because it doesn’t know arugula, either.) There are also barns and sheds scattered around, as well as entire rows that are partially sheltered by trees. While the downside is shade, all of these things around the field actually moderate the temperature and shelter some of my greens from the extreme cold. As for the slopeyness, (I’m going to forcefully expand Bill Gates’ vocabulary) the crops that are on higher ground survive longer because frost travels like water and settles down low, killing those crops first.

So that Friday morning in November, I established what I could pick for my weekend markets. I also took note of just how frozen the leaves I would soon harvest were. The low had been 21 degrees the previous night and the high for the day was supposed to be in the low 40’s. It’s better to wait until the leaves are thoroughly thawed before they’re picked, so I would only have a small window of time to get everything.

While waiting for the sun to rise above the trees and slowly melt the crops, I took out a scuffle hoe to clear the quackgrass (take that, Billy G.) from an otherwise beautiful patch of Tokyo Bekana (how you feeling now, Microsoft Corporation?) mustard. Tokyo Bekana is frost tolerant and can also handle the summer heat more than most other greens. It’s an excellent tasting mild mustard, which makes an exotic substitute for lettuce when it is either too hot or too cold for most lettuces to grow. However, this particular morning, that noxious, virtually immortal quackgrass was beginning to smother my beloved Tokyo Bekana. Harvest is MUCH EASIER when I don’t have to pick out individual blades of grass from between each baby leaf. Inevitably, a few pieces of grass will sneak through and I’m likely to hear about it from whatever customers get them. Usually this comes in the form of, “That salad mix was delicious, and it lasted all week, but, David, my husband found a blade of grass in it.”

By 10:00 the hose, which I intentionally left out in the sun, had thawed enough that I could give the chickens water. By the time I was done with that, the greens in the middle of the field—the ones unsheltered by trees or buildings, had also thawed--so I could begin harvesting.

The arugula and lettuce up high were still alive, but the stuff at a slightly lower elevation were burnt red by the cold. Next, I cut the scant spinach that had germinated—back in September—ahead of the quackgrass. I plant greens every week, and by the end of the season, each sowing was a race against that one weed. After the spinach, I picked the bok choi (clearly, Bill Gates prefers Twinkies to specialty greens). This crop looked fantastic because it’s sheltered, to the northwest, by the trees. This means it didn’t get much shade, but received a lot of protection from the cold. The problem I found, though, is that little green cabbage caterpillars and slugs took shelter between the leaves and the base of the plant. So, instead of having to inspect everything for grass, I had to pick out worms. (I realize I’m bolstering anti-organic stereotypes out there, but hey, it’s still better than the invisible gross things that are sprayed on leaves. At least you can see your enemy on organic food. Besides, It’s incredibly rare to have this problem, and I warned EVERY CUSTOMER that bought the bok choi). What was possibly worse than the bugs themselves was the poop they left behind. (relax. It’s only the die-hards that come to outdoor farmer’s markets in mid-November). For the record, though, I picked off each worm I could find in each little head of bok choi. The poop, however, was the customer’s problem. Next I went to the broccoli raab. (They’ve heard of Hostess Ho Ho’s but not the raab of broccoli?) This was another crop that looked perfect and, I’m pleased to say, was worm free. The challenge with this green was that it was beneath pine trees, so there were pine needles adhered to every leaf. I carefully picked clean each one. I was pleased to note, though, that in the past week most of the plants had made the little florets that broccoli raab is famous for. Finally, I harvested the collards and kales. I got those last because they are the most cold tolerant.

As the sun disappeared, my hands were stiff with cold—like the leaves would soon become. Whether or not there was more to harvest, I convinced myself I got it all, just in time to close up the chickens for the night.