August 2010

You are currently browsing the monthly archive for August 2010.

By all measures, this has been a weird summer, weather-wise. But you knew that already. We just thought you might like to be reminded that a lot of grinding cold, hot, wet and dry work goes into those lovely bags of salad, beets, etc. we sell at the Sat. Bainbridge Island farmers market and put in your CSA box.

Right now, the operable words are “wet” and “cold.” Our farmers, including the interns, were out at dawn today snipping salad greens in the rain and wind. They’ll be out there most of the rest of the day bringing in the veggies that will fill the CSA boxes tomorrow.

Caitlin digging beets in the rain

When they’re done, Rebecca and Louisa will head home and the interns will trudge back to their yurts–tents really–and feed their woodstoves to keep warm.

Greg, bringing in the harvest in the rain

Last night, just before 10 P.M., Greg was taking a pre-bed shower in the barn when the power went out. He stood in the cold and the dark hoping it would reappear. (It did, a few minutes later.)

Pretty romantic life, eh?

Louisa in the rain

So this one is for the farmers, old and new, who bring in the veggies and flowers, rain or shine. And for Judith, our Wise Acres neighbor, celebrity baker and all-around angel, who broke the gloom by bringing us a very fancy lunch today, complete with flutes of champagne.

Here’s to us all, farmers, subscribers, shoppers and angels. Not such a gloomy day after all.



One of our favorite, and most indulgent, bits of newspaper reading is the Sunday, New York Times wedding feature. You not only get to vicariously attend a (usually) lavish event involving (usually) socially prominent people, but you also get a lot of inside info on how they met, how he, or she, popped the question, and all that.

We don’t usually deal with weddings here on the farm. Oh, we grow flowers for plenty of weddings at other venues, and we’ve even made the odd exception, (once.) Still, this is a  working farm, not a wedding palace, so as a rule–no weddings.

 But then, what’s the fun of rules unless you get to break them. And break this one we happily did this season after Devin Bodony and Robin Briggs came to us and asked if they could get married here this year.

Now you have to understand a couple of things about Devin and Robin. Devin, at 25, is one of the first of the Wise Acres kids to grow up and move out into the wider world. He’s a big, strong guy who can bike faster, swim longer, run farther than pretty much anyone else in these parts, and he also has that great intellectual quality, a probing sense of curiosity. He’s a cool guy. Judith and David Weinstock, Devin’s mom and stepdad, are arguably the hub of this remarkable community (we posted about Wise Acres back on May 10 here .)

And Robin…well, Robin is something special. She’s smart, she’s talented, and did we mention that she’s also stunningly beautiful. We haven’t seen her leap any tall buildings yet, but she’s clearly in the local Superwoman mold.

How could we resist, plus we’d get to go to a party that we knew would include knock-your-socks-off eats and terrific music. 

Here’s how it all happened. Devin and Robin were schoolmates at West Sound Academy–she two grades behind him. They hung around some back then, but weren’t anything more than small-school friends. “He was a major hippie,” Robin says. “He wouldn’t wear shoes and things like that.”

“She,” says Devin, “was definitely smart, quiet and…elegant.”

But still, just friends.

High school ended and Robin headed east to Sarah Lawrence. Devin became a serious bike racer and moved into a rental house with a couple of other guys at Miller Bay Estates. When Robin got home the next summer she showed up at a campfire party at the house. Something clicked, as these things sometimes do, and the next day they started dating. “We figured out there was something there,” Devin says.

When Robin went back east for her sophomore year, Sarah Lawrence just wasn’t as exciting or interesting as it had been the previous year. She started suggesting to her family that she might take off the spring semester and come back west. “I had all these reasons why I should come back,” she says. But her grandmother, who listened to all those reasons, figured it out, she says. “She knew the real reason was Devin.”

Robin came back, got an apprenticeship on a farm–not this farm, but one close by. She and Devin spent the winter and spring building a little house in the woods just down the road and moved in together. One evening last July, they were sitting on the hill overlooking our farm, dreaming about their future together. Just like that, Devin asked her to marry him. She said yes.

The whole thing, they both admit, was kind of spontaneous…kind of. “I had been daydreaming about asking him,” Robin says. After Robin said yes, Devin made her ring in his stepdad’s jewelry workshop at Wise Acres.  Among his other talents, he’s an accomplished goldsmith.

The nuptuals (as they say in New York Times wedding-speak) took place at 5 P.M. on the 14th of August under the massive big-leaf maple tree, just below the yurt meadow on Persephone Farm.


And here we need to break off for a minute because–we missed it.  After months of planning, weeks of prep work, days of mounting excitement, we blew it and got sick at the last minute. Fortunately, there are plenty of pictures to give you an idea of the ceremony and party. The one we really like (taken by Devin’s aunt, Shelley Weinstock) is this one and if you want to see more click on this link here to see Shelley’s full-bore slideshow.

Robin and Devin

A few additional facts. The wedding crew roasted two pigs, a goat and half a lamb for the dinner. Kate Briggs, Robin’s sister, baked enough panna cotta cheesecake to feed the entire West Side of New York City–we’re talking 350 hungry guests, and there were leftovers.


There were two bands, plus this crew that played during the service. They were still dancing at 3 A.M. when the cops came and told everyone to keep it down because they could hear the music in Suquamish, five miles away.

music men

 Perhaps the NYT wedding reporter had another engagement for that evening but we’re told they missed the party of the year. The bride and groom leave Monday for a two-month road trip around the west. When they return, they plan to live in Indianola in that little cabin they built themselves.

And we hope be happy forever after. 



Remember how back in May we gave you all those great tips on planting and transplanting your tomatoes? Well forget all that. We’re not going to have any–or many–tomatoes this year. No tomatoes at the market, no tomato tasteoffs, and damn few tomatoes for anybody else either. The problem is called late blight, and it’s a killer. But first a bit of history.

Back in the late summer of 1845, Ireland’s potato farmers began noticing something was amiss. Their potato plants were turning black and dying. Potatoes were a critical component of the rural Irish diet and smaller outbreaks had wiped out crops and left famine in their wake before. But this time the disease–a fungus called Phytophthora infestans–killed half the island’s  potato crop. Perhaps a million people died of starvation–some 12% of the population. Those who survived, ran for their lives, including many who emigrated to the U.S., laying down a new cultural strata here.

So what’s that got to do with our dead tomatoes? The same fungus that wiped out Ireland’s potatoes is killing our plants.

All this month, we have watched with dismay as the leaves of our tomato plants have blackened and died, along with their fruit.

 Yes, we know we just wrote about herbicidal damage from Clopyralid and Aminopyralid–and we’ve had state inspectors in to try to nail down their presence in our compost. (More about that when the results come back in six weeks or so.)

But meanwhile, late blight has been the knockout blow for our reeling tomatoes. And maybe our potatoes as well. You can’t say we didn’t see it coming–the same fungus all but wiped out tomato and potato harvests on the east coast last year and with our freaky coastal NW weather tomatoes are always a crapshoot. We usually try to protect our plants by spraying them with compost tea, an organic brew that contains so many good bacteria that they crowd the bad guys off the leaves.

But compost tea wasn’t going to do the job in the face of this summer’s endless parade of cool, damp mornings–perfect incubation weather for Phytophthora infestans. The late blight moved in with amazing speed. You can’t rip out the plants fast enough to get ahead of it once the spores are in the air. It happens so fast you can’t even save the fruit. You just watch your beautiful tomatoes turn a sickly brown and die.

Of course, we’re not the starving Irish of the 1840s, and we’re not planning to leave our blackened stalks and hit the road in search of some blight-free nirvana. Our farm is churning out vegetables these days and our CSA subscribers and market customers are getting plenty of produce–the cucumbers, for instance, are going nuts this year. But year-in and year-out our customer surveys tell us that what our buyers wait for at this point in the season are those wonderful homegrown tomatoes.

Sorry. Not this year.

If you too have seen evidence of late blight here are a couple of must-do responses:

–Monitor your plants closely. That means checking daily, or even several times a day. Look for brown spots on the plant stems and a white fungal growth spreading down the stalk. Also, look for nickle-size brown patches on the leaves and white fungal growth underneath, especially in the early morning or after a rainstorm.

–Rip those dying plants out of your garden pronto–not just the infected ones but the healthy looking ones next to them. Don’t try to save them. They’re toast. And worse, they’re giving off spores that can travel long distances so you are probably contributing to the next guy’s blight while you dither.

–Don’t burn those plants. That will just send some spores into the air. Double-bag them and get them to a landfill.

–And finally, check later to make sure you have not gained some volunteer plants springing up from seeds that dropped from this year’s infected crop. Be ruthless and kill them since they likely are haboring this very contagious disease.

Next post, we’ll try to have better news.



We’ve been away from the blog. Perhaps you have noticed, or not. Whatever, we’ll be back shortly. Lots of news , pix and more.


The first hints of trouble began in early spring. That’s when e-mails began circulating from farmers around western Washington that something very bad was happening to some of their crops. By June, peas, peppers, beans and tomato starts in the greenhouses and fields at Alm Hill Gardens, a 70-acre community farm in Everson, near Bellingham, were withering and dying. The farm says it lost $250,000 in produce. Another Whatcome farmer told the Bellingham Herald he lost $40,000 in salad greens and potatoes in two months.

What was happening, according to Clayton Burrows, whose Growing Washington non-profit runs Alm Hill Gardens, was that somehow a powerful herbicide, Clopyralid, and its even more powerful chemical cousin, Aminopyralid, had tainted the farm’s compost. Dow Agrosciences, a Dow Chemical Co. unit that makes the herbicides, boasts they last longer and are more potent than most other weed killers.

Burrows was stunned since Alm Hill, like our farm, raises its crops organically, which means it uses no chemical fertilizers or herbicides. But it does use compost made from manure sold by a local dairy. Burrows says it is likely that hay sprayed with Clopyralid and Aminopyralid was being sold to brokers, who sold it to truckers, who sold it to horse farms and dairies like the one who supplied it to Alm Hill. The farm composted it and spread it on its plants. At least six other Whatcom farms and several local gardeners have told Burrows they are having similar compost problems.

You can read about the disaster Clopyralid and Aminopyralid are causing in Whatcom County in a story I just posted on the online news site, .

The herbicides first showed up in compost near Spokane. In 2001, Craig Cogger, a Washington State University soil scientist, tracked them from commercial compost back to eastern Washington hay fields. The Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) banned the use of Clopyralid on lawns and turf after six commercial composters, including Cedar Grove Composting in Maple Valley, sued Dow in state court in Illinois. Cristina Sanchez, their attorney, told us in a telephone interview from Dallas that Clopyralid’s unusually long staying power  “is a product defect” that Dow knew could ruin compost. Dow denies that.

Its not clear why WSDA didn’t extend its 2002 ban to the herbicide’s use on hay. “There’s been a historical problem with Clopyralid in compost and manure,”  says WSDA’s spokesman, Jason Kelly. But Kelly says that while WSDA investigators found traces of Clopyralid and Aminopyralid in compost and crop samples at Alm Hill, where they have been testing since June, the state has taken no action.

“The department takes this very seriously,” said Kelly. “We’re still trying to nail down which chemicals are to blame.”

That could take several more weeks, he said, and meanwhile, Kelly said farmers who suspect their crops might have been damaged by the herbicides should stop  taking them to market. “It is illegal to market crops that have been impacted by an herbicide that has not been approved for that crop,” Kelly said.

That’s a big help. But here on Persephone Farm we’ve been aware of Clopyralid and Aminopyralid for quite a while. Back in the early spring, after the warning e-mails started circulating, Rebecca and Louisa began isolating suspect manure-based compost from our most susceptable crops–legumes and nightshades. We substituted compost we make that doesn’t use manure in its place. Rebecca  also ran tests of our manure-based compost on pea starts in the greenhouse.

We didn’t see any problems–until last month.

That’s when Louisa spotted some dahlias we had composted with the suspect stuff that were withering. The flowers, which usually sport robust blooms, were spikey and stunted. Here’s Louisa holding one of the dahlias that got compost (on the left) and another that did not (on the right.) It’s not hard to tell the difference.

Then a pea cover crop we had spread with compost began withering. We had also spread  compost on some bean plants that began to wither as well. Then we saw Burrows news about Alm Hill Gardens and learned more about the problems in Whatcom County.

As you might suspect, we’ve talked a lot about this. The contaminated compost could end up costing us thousands of dollars in lost crops. We’re not sure yet if Clopyralid and Aminopyralid are to blame, but the signs point that way.

This is one of those situations that ends up with people pointing fingers everywhere and no one taking the blame. Tracking a shipment of hay contaminated with Clopyralid or Aminopyralid through the various hands as it moves hundreds of miles from a hayfield in eastern Washington to a vegetable or fruit farm on west side of the state is just about impossible. Dow Agrosciences says when it first heard about compost problems back in 2002 it rewrote its Clopyralid label to say don’t spray this stuff on crops that might be composted. It also told farmers using Aminopyralid, which is about four times as powerful as Clopyralid, not to use it on crops destined for compost. That’s enough, a company spokesman says.

“From our perspective, when we look at the amount of Aminopyralid sold and the problems from it, we feel our stewardship has been effective,” Bob Masters, one of Dow’s rangeland scientists, explained when we called the company for answers.

All well and good. That might get Dow and the hay farmers off the hook in court, but farmers raise hay mainly to feed animals. Quite often the trucker who buys it from a broker and delivers it to dairies and horse farms hasn’t seen the herbicide label and doesn’t have a clue what is on it. In turn, when the dairies and horse farm get rid of their manure they don’t know the provenance of the hay their animals ate. And nobody–least of all the farmer at the end of this conveyer belt–has the means, time or knowledge to test for an herbicide that is lethal down to parts-per-billion.

So who is to blame when the tomatoes start dying?

Well, everyone–and no one.

We haven’t been asked yet, but here’s what we think. Instead of wasting a lot of time and money trying to trace tainted hay/manure/compost in Whatcom County–and maybe other locations as well–WSDA needs to start at the head of the chain and quickly ban the spraying of Clopyralid and Aminopyralid on hay. It’s pretty clear there’s no other way to keep a check on these potent herbicides.

That’s going to cost Dow money and it will probably make some hay farmers’ unhappy too. But last time around they got their way–Dow and Ag groups representing big hay and wheat growers fought additional restrictions on Clopyralid in 2002. Look at the grief that has caused. There are plenty of alternative herbicides to fight weeds. They probably don’t last as long as Clopyralid and Aminopyralid but, as we can see, that’s both a curse and a blessing.  There are no alternatives for a farmer when his tomatoes and peppers start dying.

Of course, we’ve got a horse in this race. We wish WSDA well in its quest up there in Whatcom County, but we also wish it had dug in its heels back when researchers first figured out the problem. As Craig Cogger, the Washington State U. researcher who first traced the link between the herbicides and crop dieoffs, told us, “Even though the hay growers were aware of what was happening I worried there might be problems down the road.”

Well, it looks like the end of the road for Alm Hill Gardens, and maybe a lot more small farmers, and its time for WSDA to stop spinning its wheels.


Tags: , , , ,

Some of you have noticed the break in posts. We’ve got a new one coming soon on the herbicide Clopyralid and its stronger, newer cousin, Aminopyralid, that mysteriously seem to be showing up on the farm and killing off dahlias, beans and peas. We’re currently working on a regular news story on this, since they also appear to be showing up elsewhere in the state and wreaking havoc on crops in Whatcom County.

Very odd. Stay tuned.


Tags: ,