Genesee Valley Organic Community Supported Agriculture
by Elizabeth Henderson
If I were as moody as the weather, swinging abruptly from cold and wet to hot and dry, my friends would suggest, tactfully, but firmly, that I see a psychoanalyst. In this case, treatment, whether mental or electoral, you decide, should be applied to our great ?leaders,? who deny that human overuse of nonrenewable resources has caused global warming. In the July heat, I take comfort, despite the sweat pouring into my eyes, in weather that is appropriate to the season. The consequences of the unseasonable spell in April, May and early June, are still with us in late July: the first plantings of Swiss chard and beans are sparse; 1/3 of the melons, 1/5 of the winter squash, and 1/2 of the second planting of basil drowned. When the temperature went from 47 degrees with heavy rains, to 90 degrees with blasting sunshine in a week in mid-June, an entire planting of 750 lettuces went to seed and the early broccoli buttoned (that is, made heads the size of small golf balls). This double whammy cut the pea crop to a short 3 weeks, with the early peas maturing late and the late ones early. But after 21 years of farming, losses of that magnitude seem normal.
By early July, we were still in flood mode when we noticed that crops were looking very dry. While the plants appeared big and healthy, the first planting of summer squash was making many small half brown, half squishy zucchini and yellow squash. Time to irrigate. In sunny weather, most vegetable crops need an inch of water a week to thrive. When the mercury climbs into the nineties, like people, veggies need to drink more fluids. By the time Greg and Ammie left for their vacation in Chicago, we had pumps going and trickle tape on many of the crops. Trickle irrigation is an efficient way of placing water right where crops need it, instead of sprinkling all over the field. Reeling out and placing the tapes next to each row, however, is time consuming. Someday, we may get to the point when our main water lines are buried, and our tapes are perfectly labeled to match the length of each bed. When Greg and I laid out the beds back in 1998, we had no experience with irrigation and did not realize what it would mean to have beds of many sizes. We are learning. Fortunately, we dug the well in the Fairville Field last August and have an ample supply of good, clear water.
While patches of some of our crops look a little sad because of the water pounding they took back in June, most things are looking good. The basil, peppers and eggplants in the hoop house are producing already. With all this heat and irrigation, the peppers and eggplants in the field are not far behind. We placed the peppers that ripen yellow and orange in the hoop house in the hopes of having them early. To protect them from the rodents, which devastated last year?s crop, we put screening all the way around the hoop house. Time will tell if it works. So far, our tomato plants are very healthy, with few signs of early blight. In trellising, we are using a containment method of tying the tomato plants and doing very little suckering (cutting off of side shoots). Since the spring was so cold, we planted tomatoes in the greenhouse beds, just in case it never warmed up outside. Interestingly, those plants are not maturing any faster than the field tomatoes. The cherry tomatoes, though coddled, hooped and covered for three weeks in May and June, are not as early as last year. In the holes in the plastic where melon plants died, we direct seeded a second planting of summer squash to extend the harvest of that crop.
Our sweet corn, though planted very late - June 23 - is vibrant green and growing well. If we do not get a hard frost in early September, we may yet enjoy some corn this year. We planted more onions and potatoes than ever before and these crops appear promising. The yield on the Red Norland early potatoes was excellent and the quality good. The early onions are our first crop in our new Barn Field. Despite having a lot of well-established perennial weeds, like milkweed, to contend with, they are sizing up nicely. Using our new waterwheel transplanter, we set out fall broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbages in beds well supplied with nutrients from a thick rye/vetch cover crop. Since a mouse family in the cold frame reduced the numbers of broccoli plants, we hope to compensate with extra plantings of kale, collards, spinach, and oriental greens. Two beds of baby beets, and four of carrots promise a steady supply of those roots for the fall.
The wet spring and dry summer, made the garlic very happy. Aside from a small patch that was stunted by too much spring water, most of the crop is exceptionally large and pungent. We are grateful for all the extra hands who took part in the harvest. On a sweltering morning, the Special Vegetable Action Team, Nora Walter and Melissa Carlson, helped Victoria and me pull the first two beds of garlic. Judith Murphy, a long-time GVOCSA member, who will be moving to the farm for a few months to live and work here, and Debbie, a volunteer from Hannick Hall, did another hot stint. And a Politics of Food crew - Mark House, Alison Clarke, their guest Leigh, and summer trainees, Jose, Louis and Estiban - finished the job. (The Politics of Food youngsters are also growing some cabbages at the farm to sell at the Public Market.) When you enter the farm packing shed or back section of the barn, be sure to look up. You will see many fine bunches of garlic curing. Please consider giving garlic braids to all your relatives for holidays gifts!
As we harvest beds of crop, we spade under the residue and plant cover crops. Although the soils on this farm are good in quality, the level of organic matter is low. Since we rely on organic matter to feed our crops, we are adding crop residues, cover crops, and compost or manure whenever we can. Before planting cover crops is a good time to spread uncomposted manure, which we would not want to use before a food crop. The soil has a full nine months to digest it and any pathogens it might contain. We spread manure and compost using a manure spreader, a large wagon with a moving bottom and beaters at the back that spray the contents into the air and onto the beds. Greg works a tractor with a loader, filling the spreader, and I run the spreader over the beds. After early crops, like spinach and lettuce, buckwheat is an excellent cover crop. It takes 30 days from germination to flowering. The plant?s broad leaves crowd out weeds, and substances exuded by the roots discourage the germination of weed seeds. Before the grain forms, we spade the buckwheat under and seed oats or rye and vetch to prevent erosion over the winter. Our decisions about what cover crop to use are governed by our crop plans for the next season; we use oats before early crops and rye/vetch before crops like fall broccoli. To practice good rotations, we have to be at least a year ahead in our field plans.
Our intern, Victoria, is proving to be an exceptional worker and very dedicated member of our farm team. It?s a treat to have someone with culinary experience, who is excited about taste-testing varieties. She has learned to manage the packing shed on harvest mornings and has a good eye for quality. But still, with only one intern, we are shorted-handed. Our labor shortage has been offset to some degree by a few steady, and very competent volunteers: Chris Fayad, a friend from folk dancing, works half a day almost every week, Jay Barry has given us several full Sundays, and Jim Norton continues to drop by on his tractor to mow field edges. Noticing the shaggy state of my yard, he offered to mow my lawn too. Lucky thing he did! He discovered a mysterious wet patch that turned out to be a serious leak in the water pipe from the well to the house. No wonder the water pressure had been getting lower and lower... Watching Greg and Ammie pound tomato posts into rocky ground, our neighbor Ralph was inspired to create a new trellis system based on pyramids, which he installed on the bed of tomato variety trials. When the Cornell researchers come to taste the tomatoes, they will also get an eyeful of Wayne County inventiveness. Our friend Roland Micklem continues to help us on children?s days (the last Thursday and Sunday of each month), taking the young folks on nature walks and visits to see the bison. We are very grateful to him for his involvement.CSA members who harvested with us in late June and early July were a bit shocked, I think, at the weeds in some of the beds. Our approach to weed control is to put our limited energy into careful weeding of crops that stay in the ground a long time - onions, carrots, winter squash, and broccoli. Before planting carrots, we use a stale seed bed technique, working the soil twice at 10 day intervals to allow the first weeds to come up and then be buried before we seed the carrots. When we get the timing right, the day before the carrots break through the ground, Greg fries whatever weeds have come up first with a propane torch. Quick crops, like spinach, get a pass or two with the basketweeder, a set of metal baskets mounted on the Allis Chalmers G tractor, but no hand weeding. As soon as we harvest, we spade the residues and weeds under. Weeds that have not gone to seed made good green manure. I cultivate crops we plant one or two rows to a bed (corn, winter squash, onions, broccoli) with our Perfecta field cultivator. A few minutes with two wrenches changes it over from a one- to a two-row cultivator. The hilling process buries many of the weeds in the potato bed. We hill the potatoes twice with a set of three center bottom plows which move a lot of dirt from the edges and center of the bed up around the two rows of potatoes. Potatoes like to grow in these mounds of loose earth, and the hilling covers the tubers more deeply to keep them from exposure to the sun, which turns them green and inedible. No matter how hard we try, a few beds get away from every year and become weedy jungles. This year, we got behind on two of the early carrot beds. Many willing CSA hands helped save us from this minor disaster.
At Crowfield Farm, Becky has taken charge in an extraordinary way. She headed up a team that cut the four hundred acres of hay for the bison. Two hired men and several handy neighbors helped her, but she insisted on learning to operate all the equipment herself, running the mower and the baler for days at a time. Daughters Cory and Abby were out there too! Two or three times a week, Becky drives around Rochester and the Finger Lakes delivering bison meat and making more sales. She even helps us out by delivering boxes of our veggies too. While deeply mourning Doug?s absence, Becky is not wasting time feeling sorry for herself. She manages to keep her balance and sense of humor, setting a shining example for all of us of the value of a positive attitude towards life.
Despite all the work we do at the farm, you can be sure that we are taking a little time for other parts of our lives. On a well-deserved 5 days off, Greg, Ammie and Helen traveled by train to visit close relatives of Greg?s in the Chicago area. The highlights of their trip, besides many congenial hours with their hosts, were a baseball game between the Cubs and the Braves at Wrigley Field, and visits to the Museum of Science and Industry and the Field Museum. Helen is very excited about taking a three-week Red Cross swim class. She has discovered several friends from school and T-ball are taking it too. In mid-June, I drove downstate for a few days with my son Andy, daughter-in-law Midori and Andy?s 87-year-old grandfather. During ten days in August, I will be in Victoria, British Colombia, at the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM) 14th World Organic Congress, ?Cultivating Communities,? where I will give a talk on CSA and cooperatives, and participate in several sessions devoted to social stewardship standards for organic agriculture. I will represent the seven NOFA chapters at the World Assembly of IFOAM, which sets standards for organic agriculture all over the world and sponsors rural development projects based on organic growing in third world countries. My other piece of personal news is the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE) renewed my appointment as a Farmer Educator for a second year. This means, in addition to the honor, SARE will recompense me for the talks and tours I give and the time I spend answering other farmers? questions about organic farming and CSA.
Whatever vicissitudes lie ahead, our farm team - Greg, Ammie, Victoria, Helen and I - will keep plugging away, doing what is in our power and accepting what is not. We deeply appreciate your support through floods and searing heat! Meeting each of you when you join us on harvest mornings, we are delighted to know and feed such very fine human beings! It makes our labors well worthwhile.
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