May 2010

You are currently browsing the monthly archive for May 2010.

Every year, we give each of our apprentices their own bed to grow whatever they choose. Sometimes there are surprizes. One year, an apprentice had to be talked out of trying to grow rice. Greg Reed, one of our apprentices this year, posted this report.

                                                 —————————————

One of the benefits of working as a season-long apprentice at Persephone Farm is that we each get a 50-foot bed for ourselves. So, this year, instead of trying to coax unhappy plants from urban fill, in another first-year garden at one more rented house, I get the opportunity to grow vegetables and flowers in fertile soil, placed years ago into organic rotations under Louisa and Rebecca’s care.

Starting my bed was a bit overwhelming. Like an artist staring at a blank page, gessoed canvas, tuned guitar or chunk of unhandled clay, it took some unsticking to move past the furrowed-forehead stage and take the first steps toward this new creative project. What to plant? When to start it? Direct seed, or transplant seedlings from the greenhouse? How to squeeze multiple crops out of a single space by staggering early and late plantings? What won’t the farm already have enough of to eat or preserve?

These questions keep me up at night.

Living and working on an intensive vegetable farm means that I spend my days surrounded in lush foliage and edible landscapes. Overwintered leeks, brassicas, carrots, rutabagas and greens have been in the ground, waiting to be picked, since I arrived here in late February. Now, two and a half months later, we are harvesting truckloads of this season’s early annual crops for sale to excited customers every week, and the summer’s CSA program is about to start. Produce is grown and eaten here year round.

But I did not have the convenience of planting last fall for harvest this spring. When we learned of our personal bed space in March, there was nothing growing in them but some immature dead red nettle weeds and clumps of carrot grass in the paths. Well, that is not entirely true. Our colleague Joel had a bed full of rutabagas still colonizing his patch. We picked them as March turned to April and they were beginning to use spring’s light to start growing again.

Greg and his new pea vines

Nor did I have the years of experience with weather and succession planting, or binders of records like my farming mentors. In market farming, getting crops to customers before your competitors can mean extra cash. There are risks of course: setting out plants while the weather is still volatile can lead to disaster when a late spring cold snap settles on your tender young veggies. You gamble, but like any wise gambler you calculate the odds carefully.

While we spent our work days seeding turnips, radishes, mustard greens, broccoli and cauliflower, I spent my evenings sketching ideas for my garden bed. On weekends, I scoured the area’s feed stores and co-ops, choosing my seed. And I waited for that tell-tale sign—maybe just a feeling—that the warming weather was here to stay and it was time.

Waiting gave me a chance to organize and think through how to paint my empty canvas. But waiting also meant my own harvests will be weeks behind the rest of the farm. We pulled the first french breakfast radishes from Persephone’s beds early in April, while my three small rows of new Cherry Belle radishes arrived this week. Waiting is frustrating, but tasting those radishes sliced thin, tossed with par-cel and covered in salt, pepper, with a touch of lemon juice, was worth the wait. My bed is filled with early crops like peas and beets—already well on their way to producing more satisfying morsels.

It is starting to feel like I can do this.

This week, Caitlin and I will transplant the cucumber and winter squash starts that are sitting in four-inch pots in the greenhouse. We will plant beans, too, and try to find another section of pathway that we can sacrifice between our two beds in order to squeeze in a couple more flowers and veggies we must have. We are thinking about how to coax the most food possible out of our combined square footage. And that means we will likely end up merging our beds. Can’t we forego a pathway altogether and just slip between those cabbage plants in order to harvest and weed?

Sometimes, it is hard to visualize exactly what these growing plants will do as they take solar energy from the sky and nutrients from the ground, filling out with stem and leaves, flower and fruit. And–a paradox–while it is hard to remain patient, watching them grow so slowly each day, at the same time I remind myself that I want this season to linger so I can enjoy every passing moment and learn from every lesson, every observation, every touch.

On the farm, we scramble to keep up with acres of plants bursting with growth under their row covers, competing with vigorous weeds, putting up vegetables that must be picked at just the right time. Our own gardens, though, are a very different place; a microcosm of the larger farm, somewhere to dawdle and experiment, to shed the demand of efficiency.

I will weed my garden again this afternoon and the plants I am growing don’t look much different than they did yesterday. But the pace gives me a chance to get to know them, to rethink  their habits and their needs. The slow passage of time also builds anticipation for the moment when they will be ready to harvest and eat. I could buy haricot-vert at the store tomorrow, shipped up from Mexico or California–they would have a similar look and the same name. Waiting, I know these will taste better. Waiting, I take a deep breath.

purple sprouting broccoli--out

Memorial Day has become another one of those holidays that have pretty much lost their meaning for most people and become interchangeable. It’s not that folks don’t care about the casualties of war, but war itself has become an object of disrespect, something fought by others, elsewhere, for reasons that seem so vague–or dishonest–that we don’t have much connection. For most of us, Memorial Day is just another shopping exercise. Maybe George W. Bush was right–shopping is the ultimate patriotic act.

At Persephone Farm, Memorial Day is about Purple Sprouting Broccoli and parsnips—out with the old, in with the new. We generally work on the holiday because nature doesn’t take time off and we lose ground if we put it in idle at this stage of the season. Besides, it is still too chilly and rainy to swim or bask at the beach. Better to get the carrots into the ground.

parsnips--in

This is one of the things we like about the farm. Elsewhere, the world seems to be constantly in motion, moving in and out of focus, like one of those slideshows that keep on clicking even when you want to linger on a particular picture. Nature, on the other hand, gives its ground at a more measured pace. Everything has its time and place.

We planted the Purple Sprouting Broccoli on the lower field late last summer, knowing it would be up and ready for the farmers market this spring (unless of course the voles, or mice, or a killing frost, got there first.) Our market customers, the ones who show up year after year knowing the farm’s rhythms as well as we do, pretty much cleaned us out when it arrived. Now everyone knows it’s time to give broccoli a break and move on. There is a pleasing pattern to the whole thing that carries us all forward.

It is one way of thinking about eating seasonally. Unlike our interchangeable holidays there is a clearly defined spot in the rotation for each vegetable. Right now, for example, it is asparagus’s moment on stage. We don’t raise asparagus on our farm, but we buy and eat plenty of it during these days when our neighbors are harvesting their crop. One benefit of this year’s cool spring weather is that the asparagus season seems to have stretched out longer than usual. But it will be over in another week or two. Same for spinach. Then we  will move on to peas and strawberries.

Pete Seeger, that old leftie, quoting Ecclesiastes, sang it best: “For everything there is a season…” Makes you wonder why we insist on apples in February and tomatoes all twelve months a year. The supermarkets, trucking outfits, shippers, brokers and the rest of what we call agri-business are happy to meet that demand. But when you insist on strawberries in March, something has to give. So what you get is something that looks like a strawberry, but tastes like…well, it doesn’t really taste like anything at all, does it? What has happened when you grow a strawberry that must travel a thousand or more miles to satisfy an out-of-season craving is that you keep the name, but lose the essence.

Kind of like what has happened to Memorial Day,or Labor Day, or Presidents’ Day, or all those other Days.

We’ll wait for our strawberries. And meanwhile, we’ll savor the last of the asparagus and dream of peaches to come.

Persephone

We didn’t get around to mentioning this growing method in our Farmers Guide post on tomato starts, but it sounds interesting. Here’s a link to a story in the New York Times. What jumped out to me was that they have sold 20 million of these gadgets since 2005. That’s a heap of tomatoes.

Persephone

And, as promised, we’ve got some pictures of the new turkey babies. The hatch was disappointing–only 17 of the 80 eggs hatched. And an eagle appears to have swooped down and grabbed one of the newbies as they left the turkey house. That’s life and death on a farm.

Still, they’re mighty cute little guys and they’re already out and about. Got a sec? We’ve got pictures.

Here are a couple of the new young ones out for their first stroll.

And here’s mom giving some bug-hunting lessons.

And another lesson in feeder etiquette.

Ok, so we know that nobody’s baby pictures are as adorable as your own, and we’ll leave it at that. Ah, but they do grow up so fast, don’t they?

If you stop by the farm gate you can see for yourself.

Persephone

Tags:

Big day today. After what seems like months of sitting on their eggs the turkey hens seem done and we should see our newest crop of poults peeking out today or tomorrow.

The Guinness Book of Records says the largest turkey it knows of was 86 pounds. Let’s see–80 eggs times 86 pounds…we’ve got Thanksgiving locked.

We’ll post pix.

Persephone

Tags:

One of the best things about Persephone Farm is not on the farm at all. It’s just across the dirt road and it goes by the name of “Wise Acres”. That’s the name nine families chose 20 years ago when they purchased 17 acres of Indianola woods and decided to build their homes, raise their kids and live their lives over there.

Our ties are many and close. The place is full of talented musicians, artists, teachers and techies and they often share their skills with us. We, in turn, share our farm with them. There are days when we look out our farmhouse window and a flight of Wise Acres kids and their friends will suddenly appear from across the road and float through our lower pasture like butterflies. Hard to beat that for scenery.

 But our primary bond is food. Every Monday evening, Persephone Farm and Wise Acres gather at the common house across the road to share a meal. It usually works out to about 40 people, give or take a few guests, and we rotate the cooking chores each week. The result is that you never know what kind of a dinner to expect on Mondays. One week it can be Indian cuisine, then burrito night, or a cold, poached  salmon with cucumber scales and sorrel sauce.

Inevitably, a tiny bit of one-upsmanship sometimes creeps into the menu planning. When our turn to cook comes around we tend to focus on food we raise ourselves—a cauliflower gratin, strawberry rhubarb pie, spanikopita laced with our own spinach and eggs, stuff like that. And of course salad—lots of fresh-picked salad.

Food rules at Wise Acres dinners, no question about that. But what these dinners are really about is a much more subtle kind of sustenance called community. We’ll take a look at the dinner prep and results in a minute, but first let’s put some context around that word “community.”

Not so long ago, small farms were a hub of their neighborhood. They supplied the fuel, of course–the food–but they also provided the glue that often bound things into a comprehensible whole. If you wanted to explain the value of work to a child, farming made a pretty good model–labor and sweat in, strawberry-rhubarb pie out. Farms provided common reference points for everyone, from how a tractor works, to how to feed chickens, to what the weather is doing to the spinach. Barns made a pretty good community dance floor too.

Most of that is gone now, of course, even out in the far suburbs like ours. But somehow, for a little while on Monday nights, Persephone Farm and Wise Acres manage to blend some of that old community spirit back to into our lives. Sitting around a table, eating food grown across the road and prepared by your neighbors, finding the common ground of your lives, that’s what provides community that no faux Reality TV comradship can match.

So, okay, it was our turn to cook the other day and the interns were all over it. Susan Buster Thomas, our videographer for The Season, stopped in to watch the preparations in the interns’ cookhouse before the dinner. Here’s her video report:

The dinner itself starts at 6 P.M. when we all gather in a circle in the common house. The preliminaries are generally pretty simple. Anyone with an announcement or other comment or news tells the circle: there are announcements about birthdays coming up, a school play,  someone’s kid won a math award, the next high school basketball game. Then Rebecca, the head chef for this week, describes the evening menu and the interns each tell about their contribution. 

Then we eat the food we have grown and prepared together. And that is what community–or at least our community–looks like.

Persephone

Tags:

For us, this poem says it all. And it is one of Rebecca’s favorites. Our thanks to our friend Neva, who reminded us.

 To Be of Use

By Marge Piercy

The people I love the best
jump into work head first

without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,

who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest

and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.

Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums

but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

potato planting

We don’t do much bible quoting around our farm, but there’s an old biblical admonition, “don’t hide your light under a bushel basket”,  that seems pretty apt when it comes to tomato starts.

Every year, our starts seem to outperform those big, bushy plants you find at  commercial outlets like nurseries, Big Box stores and supermarkets. Sometimes ours don’t look as robust as theirs do on the shelf, but as the season progresses their plants’ vigor often wains, and by harvest time a lot have died or are duds, while ours are bearing nicely.

How do we do it? Persephone’s Farmer-in-chief, Rebecca, explains in this guest post on starting your tomatoes.

Persephone

————————

“Not long ago, we visited a wholesale nursery operation. They had some super tomato varieties that I knew were delicious because I had tasted them in my mom’s garden back in southeast Pennsylvania, years ago. But when I moved here to western Washington and tried to grow them, they just wouldn’t ripen or produce fruit.

“The problem was that those tomato varieties love the hot, humid summer weather we had back in Pennsylvania, but out here we live in a sub-par tomato-growing environment where most varieties don’t thrive. That made me think: what a disappointment for all those people who will buy those starts, expecting wonderful, delicious tomatoes later this year.

wilted tomato

“The Lesson: It is important to stick with tomato varieties that are tried and true producers in your growing area, that will come through again and again, not ones that have nice descriptions on their shelf tags but will never work in this environment.

“We raise lots of tomatoes, both from heirloom seeds we save ourselves and from seeds we buy from commercial suppliers. But they are all well adapted to our long, cool, summer days.  Over years of doing this, we have found that these varities will set fruit, ripen well and produce a decent yield.

“The tomatoes we prefer, with some notable exceptions, tend to have smaller fruits. Cherry tomatoes, in general, are very reliable, heavy producers. Stupice, which is an heirloom variety, is one of our favorites, along with Glacier and Early Girl.  We’ve also had success with Cherokee Purple, Prudence Purple, Moskvich and Jaune Flamme.

Stupice Tomato

“When you go to a commercial nursery or plant outlet at this time of year you are likely to see tomato starts with a lush foliage canopy. That’s because they are usually fed commercial liquid fertilizers. We make our own potting mix, which has more vitality than theirs. The whole concept of organic production is that the soil feeds the plant. That sounds obvious, but the concept behind industrial, chemical farming is that the soil is just the substrate to hold up the plant, then you supplement its diet with an array of fertilizers and liquid fertilizers.

“Making your own potting mix is labor intensive, but we think it yields far superior plants. Our starts usually look smaller than the nursery varieties, but they’re more stocky and hardy. And if you take them out of their little four-inch pots you’ll see they have dense root systems. Other plants I’ve seen for sale that are taller and more lush above ground don’t have similar root systems, which is why they don’t hold up through the growing season.

“So, to briefly recap, we grow well-adapted varieties, starting them indoors in late February, and using a sterile, soil-less mix we make with ingredients such as peat, perlite, vermiculite and coir, which is a coconut husk fiber. We plant our seeds at a depth of about three times the seed’s diameter–quite shallow–and try to keep them at about 70-degrees, day and night. To do that, we use heating coils you can buy at any garden shop.

“In five-to-ten days the plant should be pushing up through the soil. Within a month or six weeks of growth–when they are about two inches tall and have little leaves–we move them from their flats to the four-inch pots. A lot of the timing depends on the weather and the available daylight. Again, when we do this transplanting we make the potting mix, blending inert materials  like peat, coir or perlite, and some of our own soil, compost, worm castings and other good stuff. But you can use a commercial potting mix instead.

“About six weeks later, we begin to harden them off, moving them outside for a week or two, depending on weather and light.

hardening off tomatoes

“The key is to be patient and wait till the weather stabilizes at a reliable 50 to 60 degrees during the day and there is no danger of frost at night. We generally wait until mid-May to plant outside.

“When we are comfortable with the weather, we take the plant out of its pot and shake out the roots. Then we make a depression in the soil (or in a pot or hanging basket,) and add some organic fertilizer and a little water.

“Tomatoes have a unique ability to grow roots out of their stem, so if you plant them deeper they will have more root structure. Try snapping off the plant’s bottom leaves–using your fingers, not scissors–to plant a bit deeper. You don’t need to do this, but it encourages the plant to grow more roots to get additional water and nutrients.

“During transplanting into the field, we use a complete organic fertilizer–that is, a fertilizer that doesn’t have too much nitrogen, but has decent amounts of potassium, phosphorous and calcium.

“We don’t recommend using manure to fertilize at this stage because it may be too nitrogen-rich for the plants. That will cause excessive leafing at the expense of fruit yield.

“One last tip: Growing tomato plants in containers makes sense, especially for the casual gardener. Try to find a place in a warm environment, close to the house if possible to get reflected sunlight off a south-facing wall. That way they will also be easier to water and pick when they ripen. If you live on the shore, sunlight reflecting off the water can make a big difference.

“The important thing is to remember to choose a warm spot with all-day sun for your tomatoes. If you can’t find such a spot you might consider planting cherry tomatoes, which will work better in partial shade.

“And you don’t need to stake or trellis your tomatoes at this stage. That will come later.

“Last summer was the best tomato-growing weather in 15 years–lots of early season sunshine and warmth all the way through the summer. We’re crossing our fingers for more of the same this year.

“If you have questions about transplanting your tomato starts, send us a comment and we’ll try to get an answer for you.”

This post by Louisa has been one of the most popular posts on our farm site–www.persephonefarm.com–so we decided to hijack it and make it a guest post here and on our Farmer’s Guide page. If you have any comments or questions, please post them to this site.

Persephone

—————————-

“There are two main groups of turkeys in the world of agriculture. Turkeys that carry the broad breasted gene, and heritage turkeys, older breeds developed before the introduction of broad breasted varieties. Broad breasted types are the kind that everyone is familiar with and have eaten for years. They cannot mate naturally and are all artificially inseminated. Most information about raising turkeys refers to these birds.

Over the last few years I have had several groups of heritage turkey hens raise their own babies. I tried to find information about how to enable this to happen, and other than Barbara Kingsolver’s brief description in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I found very little to go on. As heritage turkeys become more popular to raise, I thought other people might benefit from what I have learned, through trial and error, knowing that the every season I refine my methods as I learn more about what is amenable to them.

I was given twenty bronze chicks that a friend had raised to six weeks old in his basement, several years ago in April. I fenced a pasture to six feet about one acre in size. This keeps the birds in, gives them plenty of room to forage, and keeps dogs and coyotes out (most of the time). This pasture has several large trees and a couple of shrubby areas for cover. I also run about 75 laying hens in this area. I put a low fence between the birds, which the turkeys can cross but the hens cannot so that they won’t eat up the more expensive turkey food.

I built them a semi-portable house with sturdy walls and a tight door to keep raccoons away at night. I read that turkeys liked an open sky to roost so I added two roof panels with clear plastic corrugated roofing and two screened windows for ventilation. Most of the time they will go in of their own accord, but not as reliably as chickens. In good weather they will sometimes just squat on the ground at night. When this happens I have to herd them into their house, for fear that raccoons will eat them, and this is the biggest pain about raising turkeys.

They are gentle on the pasture and forage well but I also feed them high protein organic turkey food. They do not eat nearly as much as chickens, but eat more during their peak growth period. When I have small poults in the run I give them 28% protein game bird starter. Turkeys need this extra protein to grow well.

When female turkeys are ready to mate, they hang their wings down and get kind of droopy, or squat down before the toms. The toms puff up, fan and vibrate their tails. Their heads turn blue, their necks red, and they huff. They will walk on the hen’s backs to mate. This is called treading. I have heard this described as hard on the hens but I have never seen any signs of damage or discomfort. To anyone who has watched a rooster in action this is positively gentle and kind.

That first season, just when I was getting ready to butcher them for Thanksgiving, two of my hens started to lay eggs along one of my fence lines in a clump of grass. I was afraid to move them and also afraid that something would eat them at night. I built an elaborate fenced thing with a tarp rigged over them to help them out.

I have since learned that if they nest in an inconvenient area, you can just move the eggs to a straw filled house and they will change their nesting location readily. The hens share nests and multiple hens will lay in one nest. The hens will bury the eggs, which are larger than a chickens egg, more pointed on one end and speckled, and will carefully pull bits of straw over them just so. The hens won’t sit on a nest until there are fifteen to twenty eggs in a nest.

One year, I created three nests and kept the numbers such that they wouldn’t sit until all three had enough eggs. It was less than ideal having them hatch in December that first year, but usually they do this in the spring. Another year, I had hens sit on unfertilized eggs for a long time, so they do not know not to do this.

When the toms have access to the hens during full-swing laying, there can be problems. The toms have stomped on the eggs deliberately to break them all. Also I have had the hens refuse to sit while the toms are around. When I removed the toms, they sat the next day.

It starts with one hen getting the idea to sit and will dabble a bit at first, getting up and spending the night on the nest. After several days, she will get serious about staying on the nest and soon all of the other hens will join in. One of the interesting features of heritage turkeys is this communal nesting. If the hens are not allowed to join together, everyone does poorly.

At first, I thought that a sitting hen would like privacy, and they do from toms and humans, but they need to be together. They will hurt themselves trying to get together and the babies will die more readily. The sitting hens like to have access to pasture and will rise once a day to eat and drink a give a large poop, then return to the nest after twenty minutes or so. The hens seem alert and nervous when sitting so I try not to scare them off the nest and pretend that I don’t see them. They like the idea that they are hidden. I keep dogs and loud people away from them at this time.

After 28 days or so, the babies will start to hatch. Over the next two days, they will emerge. Late hatchers tend to die and after a couple of days the hen will move off the nest a bit, keeping the babies under her wings. I put small feeders and waterers near them so the mom and babies do not have to go far. The babies can get lost and die so I try to make it simple for them and keep a look out for strays peeping pitifully when I am around. The moms will not leave a group of chicks to find one lost chick. In my climate this is usually in April or May so the weather is a bit warmer and the chicks have a better chance at survival. I remove the unhatched eggs after a few days because they really stink.

I have tried keeping the families confined (for their safety, we have a lot of raptors and predators), and let them take their chances in the open pasture. I have had by far greater success with letting them free, way less dying babies.

Heritage turkeys have lots of learned behaviors, unlike chickens, which are more instinctual. Turkeys imprint on their moms or on the person raising them, sometimes both. Day old poults, from the hatchery are rather expensive, need a lot of teaching and tend to die. I found that by having the hens do all the work, it was more manageable for me.

Sometimes, the game bird starter is old or deficient in vitamins and the baby birds develop leg problems. As soon as I see this happening, I put a tiny pinch of vitamin electrolyte powder in their water that I buy from my local feed store. This seems to clear up the problem really quickly. After a week or two I stop giving it to them and they have done well.

As the birds get older I clip the flight feathers on one wing to keep them from roosting in the trees. Unlike chickens, they will need to be clipped several times that first year, as the feathers tend to grow back. If they roost in trees they tend to roam the neighborhood and could fall to predation or get lost. Also they are hard to catch and manage. Turkeys are really good flyers and can jump very high. I clip the right wing for the ones I intend to eat and the left wing for the breeders. This doesn’t hurt them if you do not clip to close to the wing but it does make them very lopsided fliers.

Turkeys gain weight and get larger for nine months or so. I often choose my butchering date based on what people want rather than their prime size. Christmas is probably better than Thanksgiving for size. The toms are much larger than the hens. I like having the hens in my freezer as they are a good size for a family meal with some leftovers. A lot of people like a smaller turkey. I butcher them myself and they are somewhat harder to manage than a chicken because of their size and weight.

My turkeys come running when I enter the pasture and will pick at a shiny button or a shoelace but never attack. They will run after a running child, which can scare the kid, but for the turkeys it is kind of a game. They are interested in people and new things. My neighbors visit the turkeys often and they are a destination in my small town. People will honk their horns at grown turkeys to make them gobble. Kids like to scream at them. I try to discourage this because it bugs me. I would not consider raising heritage turkeys to be exactly profitable, although people will pay a good price for them, but it is fun and interesting. With each season, I learn new things to have greater success at raising them.

I hope this helps others who might like to try this project. We are busy at the farm so I can’t respond to your comments or emails about this subject.

Tags: , , ,