An Organic Farmer's Journal
Awake at dawn, I smooth on sunscreen, dress in well-worn jeans and a long sleeved shirt, and eat a hefty breakfast that will keep me going until noon. A glance at the clipboard reminds me that, besides the long list of crops to harvest today, we must find time to seed fall carrots. It will be a long day, as we prepare for the Saturday farmers’ market, as well.
It’s a little after 7:00 A.M., and Juan and Antonio are already in the field, harvesting greens. With the dew and morning coolness still on them, the tender leaves are less likely to wilt before we rush them to the cleaning and packing shed. Once in the shed, each crop is weighed, yield and variety recorded (this information will eventually be input into the computer so we have, among other things, an audit trail for the organic certifier). The greens are soaked in cool water to remove soil and to hydrate and quick chill them. Small leaves are lifted from the water and spin dried in a restaurant sized hand operated salad spinner while large chard leaves are simply shaken to remove excess water.
Greens meant for the farmers’ market are packed in large plastic boxes lined with food grade plastic box liners. Tomorrow morning, as the truck is loaded for market, I’ll fill the bottoms of the boxes with ice, with the greens (in their plastic bags) sitting on top. This keeps the greens cool and fresh looking even on a hot market day. Every box is labeled with contents and date of harvest before going into the cooler.
At least weekly, we walk the fields and observe. We note the stages of growth of different crops, what is close to harvest stage, and what is happening overall. We look, as well, for signs of insect and wildlife damage and disease. Some problems we leave alone, because past observations have shown that they can be resolved without intervention. For instance, in years past panic set in when I saw aphids on the bean plants. Now, I know if we wait a week or so, the lady bugs will appear, seemingly out of the blue, and feast on the aphids, with little harm done to the bean plants.
Cabbageworms are one of those perpetual pests that do not go away on their own. Within days, the pale green rascals can grow from barely visible to fat and juicy as they turn leaves into lacework. Today Juan alerts me to cabbageworms on the fall broccoli and cauliflower transplants. They are still tiny, and therefore, at the easiest stage to control. If we defer spraying, the small seedlings will be weakened. So all harvesting stops while the three of us apply a biological spray that will keep the voracious critters under control.
After spraying, I jot down the substance sprayed, the mix proportions and the reason for spraying. As certified organic farmers, we must record every input, whether the source is on farm (like our own hay) or off-farm (like commercial organic fertilizer), have labels on hand for inspection, and prove that the inputs are accepted under organic standards.
I would love to say that, because we are organic, we have no pest or disease problems. The poor agricultural practices of our predecessors, combined with urban sprawl and pollution contribute to destruction of ecosystems that took generations to develop and which, if perfectly healthy, provide a natural check on insects and disease. Although we practice several methods to restore the natural balance, we realize that the damage takes years to heal.
Green beans, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, summer squash, broccoli and cauliflower harvest follow. We hand harvest because mechanized harvesting machinery is expensive and limits the varieties we can grow. Machine harvested green bean varieties, for instance, are generally less flavorful and tender than the varieties we like to grow and eat.
As the green beans are poured into a container for cold storage, damaged or unsightly pieces are discarded. We have several coolers, all at different temperatures, to accommodate the various produce requirements. While greens, cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower can hover near freezing, we find that green beans and summer squash do best several degrees warmer.
Tomatoes, peppers and eggplant, on the other hand, are left in a cool room, as refrigeration ruins their texture. Tomatoes are stacked in the same nesting trays in which they are harvested. Peppers and eggplant are placed in shallow boxes set on the cool concrete floor.
Close to noon, the nasturtium blossoms, no longer wet from the morning dew, are ready for harvest. Each flower is gently shaken to rid it of insects lurking inside and then dropped in a harvest bucket tilted away from the sun to prevent wilting. The bucket is covered with a towel so the wind doesn’t damage the delicate blossoms on the ride back to the packing shed in the open golf cart.
Lunch is a respite from the hot sun and harvest frenzy. I savor a freshly picked Brandywine tomato sliced onto crusty bread and spread with homemade basil pesto, while the workers pop just picked hot jalapenos into their tacos.
In the Midday Sun
At the height of the harvest season, we can never seem to get it all done by noon. We finish getting close to 200 pounds of tomatoes into the cool room and 20 pounds of baby summer squash into cold storage. Antonio is off to clean garlic and Juan to prepare the beds for the carrot planting.
Fall planting is always the most pleasurable because the soil is finally in perfect tilth, weed pressure is at a minimum, and pounding rains are unlikely. On the other hand, it is challenging because we can never be certain whether the fall weather will be kind or will blast us with premature cold and freezes. Autumn is generally the dryest part of the season, as well, so, if we want crops that will germinate and grow quickly, we must irrigate.
With this in mind, I choose low lying beds to start the carrots and set up the sprinkler to water whenever the surface soil dries. These same beds were underwater a month ago, due to torrential and unrelenting rainfall that began in May and did not subside until early July. This is our first year farming this 10-acre plot; and we have learned some hard lessons. Losing as much as half of our early season crops to flooded ground guarantees that next year’s spring crops will be on higher ground.
In the dry season, on the other hand, these same beds will retain moisture longer. This helps ensure that, paired with frequent irrigation, the carrots will germinate within a week of seeding and will have a good head start on whatever weeds show their nasty heads. Juan goes over the beds with the tiller; I check that the correct seeder plate and depth are in place, fill the seeder and seed two rows to a bed. There are few lovelier or more promising sights to me than the neat lines made by the seeder in crumbly chocolate brown soil.
The date, varieties planted, and planting location are recorded so we can plan our crop rotations and evaluate the performance of different areas of the field. This record keeping is necessary, as well, to document our crop rotation schedule for the organic certifier.
Planting accomplished, Juan joins Antonio to clean garlic under the shade of the oak tree while I ready the truck for the farmers’ market tomorrow. The bag supply is replenished, the spray bottle used to mist produce is filled, and the scale and other sales equipment are loaded. Back in the office, I update the price sheet on the computer, print it and place it in the truck door pocket. Finally, the truck is backed up to the overhead door of the shed, so loading at 4:00 A.M. will be simplified.
Juan and I review what needs to be done Saturday while I am away at the market. Some beds need cultivating and hand weeding. The summer squash, which can grow inches in one hot day, must be checked and harvested if necessary. Cauliflower heads require wrapping, and more beds must be prepared for fast maturing fall crops like arugula, baby lettuce mix, spinach, and radishes.
After dinner and before dark, I cut a few bunches of basil for tomorrow’s market, slipping the long stemmed sprigs directly into warm water to form fragrant silky green bouquets. Some experts say that harvesting basil after 6:00 P.M extends shelf life and improves quality. My own experience is that it seems to last as well when harvested in the morning. But today the morning passed too quickly; so, here I am, harvesting as the sun goes down. Even if the basil does not sell out at market, it is certain that people will be irresistibly drawn to Alden Ponds’ stand because of the fragrance of fresh basil wafting from those buckets.
Weariness sets in as I enter the house, but it is a good kind of tired, the kind that comes from reaping the bounty after so many days of battling the elements, of tilling and nurturing, of watching tiny wisps of green miraculously mature into human sustenance.
Written By Mary Wilson of Alden Ponds Farm,
14518 O'Brien Road Harvard, IL 60033 Phone: 815-648-4708