Essex Farm Note, week 32

Let’s do it inverted-pyramid style today, most important news first. It’s tomato week. I mean, the biggest tomato harvest we’ve ever seen on Essex Farm. There are wagons of luscious, fire-engine red fruits laid out at the pavilion as I type. They are both plentiful and exceptionally tasty. And you will crave them come winter. Members, if you are reading this before distro and you want to can or freeze tomatoes this week, please bring your own boxes or crates to take the loot home with you. Strike while the tomatoes are ripe, because we never know when blight is going to hit us and end the tomato season.

Our 2012 oat crop is making its first appearance in the share today. The oats are smaller than normal due to the dry weather, and that makes them harder to hull. Before cooking them, put them in a bowl of water and let any loose hulls float to the surface. Speaking of cereals, I am in love with rye porridge and wheat porridge these days.  I like to soak all the whole grain cereals overnight before cooking, both for added nutritional benefits, and because it cuts the cooking time in the morning. Soak one part cereal in one part water with a few tablespoons of whey from yogurt or buttermilk. In the morning, boil two parts water with a little salt, then stir in the soaked cereal and cook, stirring occasionally, until it’s just the way you like it. When I get tired of topping it with butter and syrup, I switch to savory style, with sausage and eggs on top. And any leftovers become fried mush the next day. Farewell, overpriced boxes of breakfast cereal.

We have expensive improvements happening on the farm this week. The Barnes family is here laying tile drainage in the rest of Monument Field, Pine Field, and Mailbox field. Jane asked what the big snaky pile of black plastic pipe was. “Your inheritance,” I told her. She and her sister might not get much cash when we die but if we are lucky and diligent and they are inclined to farm, they could get some of the best dirt ever turned. I can’t overstate the difference drainage has made in production. On a wet year like last year, it keeps plants from drowning. On a dry year like this one, it encourages plants to root deeply in the spring, which means they have the wherewithal to withstand a drought. We are also pouring footings this week for the new composting barn, where the beef herd will spend the wet season.

Remember to keep your meat and milk cold between the farm and your fridge. We recommend bringing a cooler and ice with you. Meat that you aren’t using until later in the week should go in the freezer when you get home. It’s fair week! Check out Ben Stechschulte’s photo essay on the Essex County Fair’s demolition derby, http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/08/05/magazine/look-demolition-derby.html?smid=pl-share. Farm tour tomorrow. We leave from the barnyard at 10am, rain or shine. We’ll gather at the pizza oven for flatbreads around noon. In the afternoon, we’ll have a weeding party in the potatoes. The day is free for members, suggested $25/$10/$5 donation for non-member adults/students/children. And that is the news for this 6/10th-of-an-inch-of-sweet-rain 32nd week of 2012.  -Kristin & Mark Kimball

Essex Farm Note, week 31

This is our ninth season and whenever I am feeling a little smug about our progress, the farm finds a way to humble me. We went out for dinner on Wednesday, and got home past our usual bedtime, looking forward to sleep. But as we pulled into the driveway, two lambs greeted us, outside the electric net. I had left the sheep in their paddock an extra day, to try to get them to eat some unpalatable weeds. These two must have been nosing under the net for better stuff, found the charge on the fence low, and popped out. We grabbed headlamps and as Mark opened a gap in the fence, I tried to herd them toward it from behind. They spooked, and squirted out around me like two wooly balls of mercury. In the old days, I would have persisted in trying to push them against their will, but nine years in, I know better, and decided to attract them instead of repelling them. I got inside the fence, and called the rest of the flock to me, walking toward the opposite side of the pasture. I hoped the babies would find the gap and be sucked through it by the magical power of the flocking instinct. Somewhat to my surprise, it worked on the first shot. With everyone contained, Mark and I began to move the perimeter of the fence out a few yards, to give them enough grass to get through the night. Sleep was mere minutes away. “Aren’t you glad we have gotten so good at moving stock?” I said to Mark. Just then, Number One, an old battle-ax of a ewe, saw the smidgen of succulent grass we’d exposed, and with a great deep BAAAA!, charged the fence. She overshot, got tangled in the net, thrashed, and flattened it. The rest of the flock leaped over the downed fence in waves. We watched their little white tails disappear into the dark, along with the promise of sleep. The night was not about our stock handling skills after all, but it strongly reinforced another Farming 101 fundamental: keep your electric fences hot, and don’t expect them to hold in hungry animals.

Our massive planting of tomatoes got pruned, re-trellised, and harvested this week. Aren’t they delicious this year? My favorite slicer is the pink one. It is time to gear up your tomato factories, people. I’ve been putting up small loads of Juliet whenever I have a spare 15 minutes. It adds up, and you will be so happy to have them come winter. Please note that late blight is around again this year, so we have sprayed the tomatoes with copper sulfate, the organic method for preventing it. Organic does not mean harmless. Wash your tomatoes before eating them.

Now for the newsy news. Monthly payments are due today. Please help us stay ahead of the cash flow tide by making your payments on time. We are hosting a Celebrate Summer Farm Tour and crop mob next Saturday, August 11th. This is open to the public for a suggested donation of $25 adults; $10 full time farmers/students; $5 children. It is free for members. The tour will leave the barnyard at 10am. At noon, we’ll gather at the pizza oven for flatbreads. After lunch, we’ll lead a high energy weeding party, most likely in the potato field. The lambsquarters in there are humungous, and extremely satisfying to kill. Bring your own place setting, appropriate clothes and sun protection, and a fierce weed-annihilating ‘tude. And that is the news from Essex Farm for this tomato-tastic 31st week of 2012.

Essex Farm Note, week 30

It is a farewell day – to Courtney, who is off to Keeseville, and to Chad, who has been here full time with us for the busy season, but will now focus on his own projects. We send them both with lots of thanks, best wishes, and a few tears. One of the hardest parts of having employees is saying goodbye, especially after sharing hard work and many farm joys and sorrows together. Chad is available for horse logging jobs and can be reached at 540-270-7610. We hope he’ll come back and work with us when he has time in his and the horses’ schedule.

Speaking of horses, I been having a crisis of belief. It began last season as a niggling tickle in the back of my head, and has grown to a full-fledged internal conflict. Ask me what my favorite part of this farm is, and I will always tell you it’s the horses. That has not changed. But I’ve been needling Mark lately with questions about horses and efficiency, scale, and energy inputs. Such as: Is horsepower workable for us, at this scale, and at this level of diversity? Will we be able to keep up with spring work using horses alone? Can we balance our budget, given the added cost of payroll due to the slower pace of horse power? Can we find or train enough teamsters? Can we keep all the horses we need for the busy season productive year-round? Is biodiesel a more sustainable alternative? Mixed power? I am the last person you’d expect to be asking these questions, but the latest phase of growth has put them in the forefront of my mind. We welcome the input of readers and members as we hash this out in the farmhouse and among the farmers here.

Members, it’s high harvest season now, which means it’s time to think about what to put in your freezer and pantry for next winter and early spring. Here is the drill. Check the board each week for items in abundance. Some may be available the same week, but others need to be ordered by the Tuesday before distribution, by sending an email to essexfarm@gmail.com, subject line HARVEST. We currently have cucumbers, chard, zucchini, kale, and beet greens in abundance. I think it’s easier to put things up little by little. And keep a list, because if you are like me you will soon forget what lurks in the frosty depths of your chest freezer. If you are a new member, you might want to talk to me or to veteran members about what and how much to put up. And as always, unless you’ve requested extra, or spoken to Amy or Jenny, please take only what you will use in a week.

When there is abundance from one direction, there is dearth from another. It’s drying-off season for the dairy cows, so they can rest before giving birth to their calves in the fall. We stopped milking Zea this week, and other cows are not far behind. At the same time, their production has dropped because they are late in their lactation, and because the pasture is not as rich as it was earlier in the season. This is all to say it is time to limit milk. Please check the board carefully. Soon we will go to twice per week milk distribution, and ask those who live close to the farm to pick up their milk on Tuesdays. Next year, some of our cows will freshen in the spring rather than the fall, so the drop in production won’t be quite so pronounced. And that is the news from Essex Farm for this rain-blessed 29th week of 2012.

Essex Farm Note, week 29

Fickle weather! Most of the rain passed us by this week, falling just to our north and south. We did get about half an inch – more of a sip than the deep cool drink the plants are craving. We expect slow growth, late or limited second cut hay, and limited pasture this summer, but all of that is better than the fast death by drowning, or slow death by moldering that so many of the plants suffered last year. Forecast says there is a chance for more rain early next week, so we’ll keep our fingers crossed that we see some of it.

Adam Perry and Mark Risley came over yesterday to harvest the rye. It is a mighty thing for farmers used to a horse’s pace to watch the combine move through the field, taking huge swaths of brown stalks and their bowed heads of ripe grain in each pass. The grain – 7 tons of it – came in a touch too wet at 15% moisture, so we will spend the next couple weeks stirring it and blowing it to get it down to 13%. We will also bale the straw that the combine left behind – a commodity nearly as valuable, in our straw-poor area, as the grain itself. I have had my eye on it for construction purposes but we may well need it for bedding this year. This coming week we will break ground on the two composting barns we’re building to keep our livestock off of pasture in late winter and early spring, and we will need plenty of straw to keep them functioning properly.

Garlic came in this week, too. It is tied in picturesque bundles, hanging to dry on the east wall of the east barn. In the field, the tomatoes are ripening fast. They are in the share today. The small variety is called Juliet, and is excellent for eating, drying or saucing. I like to half them, drizzle with a little bit of olive oil and a few shreds of basil, dry them on a cookie sheet, cut size up, in a very slow oven for 2 or 3 hours, then put them in a zip lock bag and pop them in the freezer. The slight dehydration intensifies their sweetness. The kids eat them like candy, and I cook with them all winter.

There are lots of summer raspberries to pick this week. Members, help yourself, anytime you like. Remember to pick everything that is ripe in a given section, and return your berry boxes as soon as you can. Milk production is declining, as most of our herd is getting close to the end of their lactation. The dairy cows are grazing around the barnyard now – we are taking advantage of any and all grass we can find! Be aware that Spencer the bull is still with them, so don’t wander among them. Egg production has dipped a bit, as it does every summer, so please go easy on eggs for now. Weeds are demanding a big blast of attention this coming week. The potatoes (so many of them!) need a hand weeding, and the corn will be hilled. We have no potato beetles to speak of this year, because we rotated potatoes to the other side of the farm, and the beetles have not yet found them. Hooray for rotation – it really does work. Courtney and Chad spent most of the week behind horses, cultivating and mowing hay. Next week is Courtney’s final week with us before she moves on to the farm she and Asa are starting in Keeseville.

And that is the lickety-split news for this fresh 29th week of 2012.

Essex Farm Note, week 28

It’s been a stressful week around here. Mark is still wrestling with his injury, trying to find a balance between the rest that his body needs and the work that needs to get done. All the plants want rain, and there is nothing we can do about that. Cash flow is tight – the legacy of last year’s flooding, which necessitated the purchase of $60,000 of grain. Then Ashlee broke her foot, Gwen got an impacted wisdom tooth, and Gus worked himself sick! Everyone is working very hard, doing the best they can with less guidance than usual. The good part is that Ashlee’s absence brings Mark and me back into the dairy two mornings a week. I have so missed the cows. Just being in the barn with them calms and soothes me. I remember when Mark and I first met, he told me that if things got bad, I should just send him out to plow something, because soil and sweat were a balm to him. He knew then, like I do now, that working at what you love and believe in will ground you when you feel a little lost.

There are lots of good things happening this week, beyond the above tribulations. Building is about to start on two covered barnyards, thanks to grants from the USDA. It’s a big $200,000 project, and Cory is managing it. All the dry weather means plenty of opportunities to make hay, which is what is happening as I type. Summer vegetables are flowing in. Raspberries are booming now. Come pick them! I’ve put a couple quarts in the freezer, despite the temptation to eat them all right in the field. The calendula is blooming in the herb garden. You can pick as much as you want. I dry it, infuse it into olive oil, and use it to make a soothing salve. It’s excellent for diaper rash! I’m putting things up little by little this year instead of in exhausting marathon sessions. This week I froze basil, cilantro and garlic scapes. Roughly chop with a knife, and then process them (I use my trusty immersion blender) with oil and a little salt. Freeze them in ice cube trays, then pop out the cubes and store them frozen in a zip lock bag. Fast and easy, and they are invaluable when fresh herbs are gone. Ask Amy or Jenny for items we have in abundance.

Members, it’s time for my periodical reminder to return your glass every week. I know it’s not easy – sometimes I forget and I live here! While I’m at it, please wash your glass AND your lids very carefully before you return them. Rinse them in cold water as soon as they are empty (dried-on dairy is super stubborn stuff), then scrub by hand with hot soapy water. We use the green 3M scrubbies in the farmhouse. Visually inspect both the jar and lid threads when you’re finished, as they can get icky if you’re not careful. After you rinse and dry, do not replace the lids. Store and return them separately. (It’s also fine to run your glass and lids through the dishwasher after they’ve been rinsed and scrubbed.) We rewash everything using a sanitizing solution and an automatic spinning brush gizmo. This works really well, but you can’t sanitize something that is not already clean, as the dairy inspector likes to say. Please save us time and scrubbing effort by bringing your glass and lids back – sparkling clean! – every week. And that is the news from Essex Farm for this Friday the 13th of the 28th week of 2012.

Essex Farm Note, Week 27

Draft horses are stoic beasts. They can work through heat, dust, discomfort and fatigue. But, like Gulliver, they are tormented beyond their limits by hordes of little things. The face flies that mass around their eyes and nose, the green-headed flies that bite the belly, neck and chest, and the dreaded big black ones that like to attack the legs are all exceptionally bad this year. Yesterday, I walked Jay and Jack up the sugarbush hill to cultivate corn. The previous night’s rain must have hatched out a new crop of bloodthirsty bugs; each step in the tall grass seemed to draw more of them to us, until the horses were moving in a living, buzzing cloud, and shook their heads in misery. In the past, we’ve gotten through these bad summer weeks using a combination of the old-fashioned string fly nets with masks that make the horses look like extras in Lawrence of Arabia, plus the liberal use of a repellant I make from a blend of essential oils (and use on us as well as the horses). This year, the flies are overwhelming both of those defenses. We’ve just gotten a delivery of conventional pyrethrin-based spray, and hope it will make them a lot more comfortable.

More gross entomological news this week. Have you heard about the armyworms? The mild winter, plus a late hatch for the parasitic wasps that usually keep them in check, equals a banner year for these caterpillars that travel in great writhing waves, and can devastate a field overnight. They are voracious eaters, and will devour row crops, grain plants, grasses – even lawns. We saw the damage first hand up on Middle Road. They were camped in the hay field next to the one we were haying, and had eaten every blade of timothy to the ground. The equipment parked in that field was covered with squishy black casualties. I shudder to think what they would do in our hard-won corn, or in the vegetables.

The good news is that for now, all is well, and isn’t that all we can ask for? We got a little over half an inch of welcome rain this week. The plants are so busy, stretching down for nutrients, up for sunlight. We put up a big load of hay last weekend, thanks to a long days that ran into the night. We have over 7,000 bales stored now. Liam has been top dressing the corn in Chad Field with compost, because it’s hurting for nutrients. Other fields of corn are looking pretty good, though, and the oats looks great, as does the rye, which is close to harvest. Vegetables are booming. Raspberries in the share this week, hooray. I’m starting to stock the freezer for winter. So far, I have asparagus, strawberries, kale, and scape pesto. If you are looking to do the same, check with Amy or Jenny at distro for items in abundance. In community news, there are two cooking classes coming up at the Grange: small fruits with Joann Gardner on July 14th, and Totally Tomatoes with Kevin McCarthy on July 25th. See www.thegrangehall.org. Essex Theater Company’s Godspell opens tonight at the Masonic Lodge, and runs through next week. Our own Natalie Kawecki appears as Peggy. Love and thanks to Carrie and Pete of the Old Brick Store for providing not only their pizza oven but ingredients, time and expertise. I am out of town so no 4pm tour today, but we will try for next week. That’s the news from Essex Farm for this crawly 27th week of 2012.