June 2010

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Louisa’s turkey and chicken pen sometimes has a frenetic air to it, with chickens squawking, eggs laid hither and thither, turkeys wandering around, and everyone pecking at everything and making a racket. Maybe it is just so many loudmouths in one spot, or perhaps it is the everpresent threat of a marauding hawk or eagle swooping in for a quick kill that keeps things on edge, but chaos seems to dominate.

But something odd has been happening in the pen lately–the place seems steeped in serenity. (Reminds us of an editor we once knew who concocted a headline for a slow news day: “Tranquillity Ran Rampant in Yonkers Yesterday.”) The turkey hens are gently rolling their eggs in the henhouse to keep the pre-hatchlings happy. Chocolate, the lone Tom, is leading the young turkey poults on expeditions around the pasture and spelling the hens on the eggs. Even the chickens seem to have calmed down a bit now that summer is showing its face.

Of course, a couple of days of sunshine in June and a bit of peace and quiet doth not always a summer make, and we’ve certainly fallen for this dodge before, so we’re not breaking out the flip-flops just yet. But if this be summer, bring it on.

The latest news is a new pair of goslings that Louisa has added to the fowl pen.

Newcomers

 The young geese seem to be fitting right in, pecking lazily around the yard and mingling peaceably with the rest of the birds, making sort of pre-gooselike honkings at passers-by. We’re not sure of their sex yet–they’re still in that fuzzy asexual stage–but we’re hoping that eventually they’ll breed and add to the farm’s feathered collection. Already, their honks have changed the tone of the pen’s music.

Meanwhile, the rest of the farm is preparing for our annual garlic-peeling party tomorrow evening. Despite the gloomy note of our previous post the party is on. We have about 16 rows of hard-neck garlic left in the field. Louisa and the interns will pull those plants at the last minute and pile them for peeling in the yurt meadow. Rebecca and the interns are already hunting up their favorite garlicky recipes for the accompanying potluck, and our local musicians are tuning up to entertain. By sundown, we expect both the garlic peelers and our barn loft will be stuffed.

Hardneck Garlic

The thing about garlic is that it is both strong and delicate. This crop was planted last fall and over the winter we’ve lost about a third of it to bad weather and mould. Most of our guests will go away from the garlic peeling with seconds–bulbs that are fine to eat but have taken up too much moisture to hang in the barn and must be used now. The rest we will haul up into the barn loft where it will hang in the rafters and dry. As it does it will gain strength, reaching its peak potency by the fall and winter.

There is something civilized and reassuring about gatherings like this, with neighbors and friends, grownups and kids, all sitting in a big circle on the meadow on hay bales and blankets, spending an early summer evening working on something so tangible while trading news, gossip and recipes. There will be music and tables loaded with good food. For us, the season tends to divide itself with these events, almost as much as by the weather and crop cycles themselves. 

We are not always such a harmonious bunch of course, and to be sure this year’s cool, wet spring has created its own set of frictions and frustrations, both down in the turkey pen and out in the field. But warmer weather and the promise of filling the barn loft with bunches of garlic that have passed through many patient hands seems to smooth things over and bring out the best in everyone.

We’d like to believe this sense of peace and harmony will hang around for the rest of the season. But like the weather and the crops, nothing can be taken for granted around the farm.

This week, we’ll be happy with a single wondrous evening of rampant  tranquillity.

Persephone

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Gloom

As Cliff Mass, our weather guru, noted on his blog, yesterday–one day short of the longest day of the year; the day when the sun should be shining its brightest–we had less sunlight than any day going all the way back to Feb. 10.

Looks like we’re not going to hold our annual garlic peeling party this year. Our garlic is rotting in the field and we’re peeling it indoors, trying to save what we can. Our foul-weather gear is wearing out and we are sick of grey.

Summer solstice–bah.

Persephone

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The erratic spring weather has played games with our lavender harvest this year and we’re running a bit late. We’re already getting calls from our restaurant customers and questions from our market shoppers asking when the lavender will be ready.

Hang on. We’re almost there.

Persephone's lavender patch

We’re not one of those giant lavender factories like you find in France or out further on the Olympic Peninsula in Sequim, but we’ve got a couple of hundred bushes planted in our lavender patch, including the English varieties, Hidcote and Munstead, (which aren’t really English at all, having started in the French Alps,) some hybrids like Grosso and Abrialii, which bloom a little later, and Provence, which is actually a cross between English and Spike lavender.

Hidcote Lavender

No matter. Everyone seems to love the stuff. When we sell lavender at the farmers market kids come by to sniff the bouquets and pinch the sachets. Their moms tell us that the scent reminds them of their grandmother’s house. Our friends Jeff and Heidi, owners of Blackbird Bakery on Bainbridge Island, celebrate summer’s arrival with a delicious and very popular lavender lemonade from our English lavender.

We used to like the hybrids best for their drama–the bushes and blossoms sit 3-4 feet tall and give off a scent so overpowering you have to be careful when you are picking it on a hot day or you’ll get lightheaded. The hybrids are too strong for kitchen use but they make great bouquets and sachets. Sometimes, when we go to pick some Grosso or Provence early in the morning we’ll find bees curled up and snoozing in the plants, like drunks sleeping off a bender.

But we’ve also come to appreciate the more modest English varieties for their subtlety. They’re smaller and less dramatic, but rub a stalk of Munstead or Hidcote (the names just sound veddy British, don’t they?) between your fingers and the aroma has a soft wafting air to it. These are the lavenders that you sprinkle on the salmon on the grill or bake into shortbread. Rub the Grosso and it is like the difference between a smooth waltz and a sharp tango. When we get kids coming through the garden in summer we always have them try the rub test. Everyone can tell the differnce.

Lavender season usually runs from mid-June into September, but if you want to dry it for potpourri or dried bouquets you have to move quickly. The calyxes–the tiny, bright blue flowers that give the blossom its brightest color–last only a week or two and that window can shrink to a day if you get a late June rainstorm when the flowers are open.

lavender calyxes

 We’ve been checking the patch regularly for the last two weeks to see how things are progressing. We picked a few bunches of Munstead this week for Jeff and Heidi’s lemonade but we’re still waiting for the flowers to show.

When the day comes, we’ll swoop down, pick as much as we can, then hang it up to dry in the barn. Makes for an interesting olefactory experience with the garlic harvest drying in the barn loft and the lavender drying down below.

Harvesting English lavender can be a tricky. Sometimes, when we are getting impatient, we’ll snip a bunch early in June that looks done only to find out the stems haven’t quite firmed up. An hour later, the whole bunch is drooping and we have to toss it. But wait too long and the flowers fall off. You can still dry it and the buds will hold some color. But mostly they go grey and you are left with a drab bouquet.

How do we know when it is ready? We pay attention to the flowers, of course, but we also listen to the bees. One day the patch will be silent and you can hear the breeze rustling the stalks. The next day, when the first lavender flowers open, it sounds like someone left a small Toyota revving up in there.

We don’t keep honeybee hives because they draw the occasional wandering black bear like a dinner invite. In the decade we’ve been farming in Indianola we’ve never had a bear thrash our crops, but our neighbors sure have. And with 100 fruit trees ripening  in the late spring and beehives bursting with honey any bear would regard the farm as his own personal smorgasbord.

Just how the bees know when the flowers are ready is something of a mystery to us–one of many that surround bees. What’s clear is that once the lavender patch begins to bloom those bees could care less about anything else.  And they never sting. We’ve wrestled lavender blossoms away from bees while we’re harvesting and still parted friends.

It’s pretty clear we could go on endlessly about our lavender, but you really ought to see and sniff for yourself. Just be careful you don’t OD on the stuff.

Persephone

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The word “bitter” brings up all kinds of unpleasant memories. Remember when you tried coffee for the first time? Or how you felt when that long-ago girlfriend told you that you were no longer her dreamboat? Divorce?–we won’t go there.

But that, as they say, was then. Nowadays, bitter is most definitely in. Hotshot restaurants like New York’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns feature bitter greens on their menu. Syndicated food writers like Lynne Rossetto Kasper suggest sprinkling them in your Mediterranean Braise. Just about every food emporium worth its boasting rights–and the prices that go with them–is pushing endive, rappini and raddicchio.

Here at Persephone Farm we’ve been growing these greens for years. We’re not going to boast that we’ve been ahead of the culinary curve–not too much anyway–but we can still recall the days we’d lug this stuff to the farmers market on Saturday morning for a smattering of hardcore foodies and try to explain to the other shoppers why they would want to add such a puckering element to their salads.

It was a long hard slog. A lot of those greens came home after the market. Still, Rebecca has always had a slightly perverse yen for bitter–chocolate, beer, veggies, sometimes even a mate. So we kept at it. Only a relatively small percentage of the greens we grow here qualify as “bitter” but we eat a lot of them.

Lately, though, we’ve had a hard time keeping up with the demand for them, both from our CSA customers, market shoppers, and from the restaurants we supply. Take dandelions. The compost bin used to be the preferred place for those lawn despoilers. These days, though, dandelions are the star of the salad bowl.

dandelion greens

How did this happen?

Well for one thing eating seasonally has become more desireable–thank you Michael Pollan. Our bodies tend to crave certain kinds of chemicals and vitamins, especially after a long dreary winter, and spring is when a lot of bitter greens are available if you like to eat seasonally.

Kale and dandelion greens, for instance, are big sources of phylloquinone, or vitamin K, which helps heal cuts and strengthen bones. Here’s the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s list of top vitamin K veggies. Add collard or turnip greens if you want good sources of vitamin A, which protects your body’s immune and reproductive systems. Rapini, or broccoli rabe, and cress are also nutrient powerhouses.

Put them all together and guess what, you have a salad of bitter greens.

The trick, says our friend Brendon McGill, the owner and head chef of Hitchcock on Bainbridge Island, is to add a bit of salt and olive oil to bitter greens, either while you cook them or as a salad dressing. “They balance out the bitterness,” Brendon says, “and make it more pleasant.” He also suggests adding a salty goat cheese to salads to smooth out the tang of bitter greens.

Bitter is not for everybody, but you never know. There will be plenty of endive, arugula, raddichio and cress in the salad when the CSA subscribers show up for their weekly produce boxes later today. And we’ve got some recipes posted on our farm website, www.persephonefarm.com if you are unsure what to do with the stuff.

Like your mom always told you: “Eat your greens.”

Persephone

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When we last looked in the turkey pen Chocolate, the lone male, was in exile to another location for his bad behavior as a father-to-be. He had been stomping around the eggs before they were hatched by the five turkey hens and annoying everyone with his constant gobbling.

chocolate in exile

In short, he was being a lousy dad. True, it was kind of hard to tell whether Chocolate was just boasting about his new paternal status or being loud and obnoxious–you know the type.

In any event, Louisa, the turkey maven, was having none of it, so off he went to a distant pen full of chickens.

Well, the poults hatched–18 of them–and Chocolate’s been reinstated into the turkey community. Fatherhood can do funny things to a guy and apparently Chocolate is no different than most proud papas. Louisa says she looked in the turkey house a couple of days ago and there, peeping out from under Chocolate’s wing, was a turkey baby. The next day there were two poults nestled under the tom. And when the youngsters venture out of the turkey house there is Chocolate standing guard.

Now, wonder of wonders, Chocolate is taking an occasional turn with the hens, sitting on a new clutch of turkey eggs. Is this normal or has fatherhood rattled the old tom’s marbles?

The drama continues.

Persephone

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You can think what you want about nudging nature in this or that direction, but when it comes to hoop houses, we are willing to give it a try. Of course we’d prefer that nature take its own course–we’re big on letting good bugs eat bad bugs, for example–but sometimes in this weird Pacific Northwest climate you just need to give the whole process a little shove.

So this year, in addition to the usual row cover that most farmers around here use to warm up the soil and keep down pesky critters like Cabbage Root Maggots and Carrot Rust Flies (we struggle with the bugs, but they’ve got great names, no?), not to mention our resident peacock, Cleo, we’re experimenting with low-tunnel hoop houses in the garden.

Low Tunnel Hoop House

We couldn’t have picked a better year. Cliff Mass, the weather guru, says this is the latest that spring has ever progressed and still not hit 75 degrees. We’re hoping that record will evaporate this weekend when it is supposed to reach into the 80’s, but that won’t do much for all those crops that have shivered and rotted in the field during this year’s cool damp spring.

There is no doubt that row covers and hoop houses keep growing veggies drier, warmer and more protected in a climate like ours, levelling the playing field so to speak. But there are a lot of mixed feelings around the farm about messing around with nature like this.

Rebecca, a wise and preternaturally suspicious farmer when it comes to technology, worries that introducing the low-tunnels may upset the insect check-and-balance system. In artificially protected environments like greenhouses, things sometimes tend to go haywire, like chronic infestations of red spider mites or aphids. We have found that those outbreaks are less likely to occur out in the field where nature balances things out.

Of course, some farmers use chemical baths to kill every crawling and flying thing in the field–and add a little poison to your plate as well. We don’t do that. But we do make sure we’ve got plenty of certain kinds of plants around to attract beneficial insects that feed on the bad guys.

For instance, there’s Alyssum.

alyssium

Ladybugs love to hang around the stuff. And ladybugs gobble up aphids like a third-grader eats jujubes. When they are done with the aphids they move on to other pests.

ladybug

Ditto for the syrphid fly.

syrphid maggot

If you were an aphid placidly munching on a cabbage leaf the sight of a syrphid maggot, reared up to its full half-inch height, would be terrifying, sort of like encountering one of those giants in a Japanese monster movie.

We also plant cilantro, dill, fennel and parsley to attract  insect predators like parasitic mini-wasps and tachinid flies. We won’t dwell on those bugs or how they kill their prey, but they do the job.

Low tunnel hoop houses can have other downsides too. Our peppers, tomatoes and potatoes seem to thrive under the plastic sheeting, but on a sunny day the temperature inside these structure can quickly shoot to over 100 degrees. If you don’t open the cover at each end in the morning some plants, like beans, simply can’t handle that kind of heat and refuse to germinate.

We’ve also seen some plants in our low-tunnels with scorched leaves. We’re not quite sure yet what that’s all about, but they could be getting burned by the heat, or from the shock of exposure when we pull back the plastic covers, or even water on the leaves making a lens that accentuates the sun’s heat.

Mimicking natural organic systems isn’t easy. “We’re working with so many systems that all interlock–crop varieties, wind, moisture, heat, insect relationships,” says Rebecca. “We’re just barely dipping our toe into this pool.”

Every year, some of our apprentices vow that when they start their own microfarm they will shun artificialities like row covers and hoop houses and let nature take its course. And every year, the new farmers discover that when nature does do its own thing, sometimes the results aren’t so pretty. In the end, ideological purity usually loses out to practicality.

We don’t have any incisive thoughts about that dichotomy. And since we seem to be veering toward a lot of big words we’ll let this go and wait for nature to work out those conflicts. And hope for the best.

Persephone

We have several major benchmarks during the farm season and one of them is our CSA orientation. It marks the start of the CSA and gives subscribers a chance to spend some time with the farmers for an evening at Persephone Farm. And once again, on Wednesday evening, the weather goddess smiled and we oriented and managed to stay dry.

Over a dozen years of these gatherings we have never been rained out. Oh, it rained pretty much all day Wednesday, with predictions of more of the same into the night, but Rebecca refused to consider a Plan B if the heavens were still weeping when the orientation began.

And lo, the rain stopped and the clouds blew away two hours before it all began. The Irish are just lucky that way, I guess.

CSA Orientation

CSA orientation

We always urge our CSA subscribers to show up for this initial session, whatever the weather, and there are a couple of reasons why. Cohesion is a big one. Louisa gets to explain, in exacting detail, our pickup procedure–”Okay, Bainbridge subscribers over here, Indianola subscribers over there, I’m the Agate Pass bridge. When you pick up your box, do not cross this bridge…”

Try as we might, however, some folks just don’t quite get it and walk off with someone else’s bag of veggies. Inevitably, that leads to an anguished–or angry–call that night or the next day from the subscriber whose lettuce and radiccio went to the wrong home. Such mistakes are bound to happen over a long season, but it helps to walk the newbies through the process.

Just as important, we get to meet our new subscribers face-to-face, usually with their kids in tow. During the season, some of our subscribers pick up when we’re not around and we never do get to spend much time together. The orientation party at the farm gives everyone a chance to bond a bit. One of the attractive things about the CSA model is that it means we are all in the same boat, co-investors in the year’s crop, farmers and subscribers alike. That mutual ownership gets reinforced at the orientation, making the subscribers’ connection to the farm more than  just an annual check and a brief weekly dash from the car to the pickup box.

CSA Orientation

Rebecca greets this year's subscribers

We have written before about the beauty and the economics of the CSA model (take a look at April’s “The Real Farmville”.) Wednesday night, we saw it in action, with packs of kids racing from the chickens to the lambs to the turkeys, families roaming through the gardens inspecting the progress of the chard and everyone munching spanikopita made with spinach we picked a couple of hours earlier. Our friend and neighbor, Judith Weinstock, showed off her wonderful bread and cheese, which she makes right across the road from the farm. Hard to beat that for eating local.

CSA Orientation food table

Judith and her bread

Like our garlic harvest party in July, and the cider pressing in October, the CSA orientation has become a community event, with the farm as its nexis. Sometimes it seems that food, and the politics of food, have gotten tangled up in so much posturing, finger-pointing and anger that it is tough to sort out what really matters in the whole process. But events like the CSA gathering bring things back into focus. For a little while, we get to put aside the rest of it and just savor the taste of a freshly picked raw turnip. What could be more essential than that?

Rain or no, we would have held our annual convocation anyway, and if it did rain perhaps it would have given everyone who showed up this year a better sense of what farming is really like. Harvesting in shorts and tank tops in July is all well and good–lord are we ready for it–but the reality of the farm is that you take what is given to you. That means picking lettuce in a downpour or tasting turnips when turnips are what are getting harvested this week.

When your farmer’s name is Rebecca Slattery, at least you have the promise of that Irish luck to make sure it will all work out for the best.

(And many thanks to Leslie Newman, ace techie, photographer and subscriber, for the pictures.)

Persephone

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