Plunging into Fall

The farm seems to be plunging headfirst into Fall. Fallen leaves are everywhere, empty boughs abound, nature is slowly emptying itself of life. How is it that the transition is always so sudden? It always takes me by surprise. All that’s left in the fields is row upon row of the vegetables that will fill your baskets over the coming weeks.

I must admit, it’s a time of year I enjoy, as nature separates the wheat from the chaff for everything, which makes our job that much easier at the farm. Between two harvests, we rush to clean out vegetable beds as they are emptied, we begin to dismantle and store the last of our irrigation systems which were still in use in our high tunnels and we collect sundry farm tools scattered here and there that had disappeared in the lush summer growth…

We are readying ourselves for the harvesting of our root vegetables, which include winter radishes, carrots and rutabaga, among others, and which will free up vast sections of our fields soon to be sown with autumn rye. A certain febrility as the end of the season draws nigh has replaced the permanent sense of urgency characteristic of the growing season at the farm.

In your baskets, you will find vegetables to remind you that Thanksgiving is just around the corner. Buttercup squash will grace some baskets, pumpkins or acorn squash others – in either case accompanied by seasonal greens and root vegetables. Speaking of which: I would like to draw your attention that it is not because they are crisp and firm when you receive them that you can store your root vegetables unprotected in your refrigerators. To ensure they last as long as they should, we cannot insist enough on the importance of storing them in plastic or glass containers. The “crisper” drawers of your fridge will simply not keep your carrots crisp unless the latter are protected.

We look forward to seeing you all again.

Cleaning House

We had a rough start to the day last Saturday. A more-or-less anticipated frost had struck overnight, dashing all hopes of a lingering summer even as it killed most weeds. It was a mean hoarfrost, spreading its white crystals as far as the eye could see, not a speck of field was spared.

Despite the shock, yours truly is generally accepting of what such a frost heralds — i.e. the start of Mother Nature’s fall housecleaning. In one fell swoop, she indiscriminately sweeps out both the good and the bad, the necessary and the unnecessary, leaving us no choice but to regretfully bid adieu to our nightshades which were still going strong and to hurry up and pick the last winter squashes remaining to be harvested.

The only vegetables which remain standing are the thicker-skinned ones, those who thrive in colder weather as their flavour sharpens, such as Brussels sprouts, turnips, radishes, carrots and beets. You would be wrong, however, to think that this spells the end – there is still much to be done: rye to be sown, garlic to be planted, tunnels to be moved and many other tasks to be undertaken.

So, in your baskets this week: leafy greens, roots and a few tomatoes. The vegetables are still growing, albeit it at a slower pace, and some planned harvests will of necessity be delayed – like the beets which we had hoped to serve up in this week’s basket but that will need another week or two before they’re ready.

On the squash front, the star of the week is the butternut. Don’t fret about an accumulation of squash on your kitchen countertops – except for the spaghetti squash which has a shorter shelf life, most of them will last for weeks if not months…and are decorative to boot.

Frosty forecasts

This morning’s field inspection took place in the deepest of silences. Dawn had broken, it was the beginning of an honest day’s work, but in the eerie quiet, it seemed as though everything was numbed by the morning’s chill.

In the winter squash patch, a few forlorn and forgotten squash seemed to be begging to be taken indoors, anywhere being better than where they lay. Our field solanaceae were also looking almost peaked, despite the protective cover of our high tunnels. Be that as it may, Mother Nature knows what she’s doing and bringing the cycle of life to an end is something she does…naturally.

Already, the forecast is calling for our first fall frosts, two nights below zero by Thursday in fact, just enough to instill fear in our sun-loving nightshades. There’s no reason to panic, however, as there are plenty of other vegetables who find an early frost invigorating, a warning shot across the bow prompting them to hurry up and sweeten before the season truly ends.

This week your basket will be filled with a motley crew of vegetables, a schizophrenic blend of summer handfuls and fall armfuls. As promised, the spaghetti squash will be making a second appearance, mostly because it shouldn’t linger too long in our warehouse – and the fresher you eat it, the better.

 

Of Strawberries, and Other Matters

I will not write of the week that has just passed, almost identical to the one that preceded it and not unlike the one to follow – all of them providing glimpses of the next season and of small pleasures still to come. I will instead tell you of our planting schedule for the next couple of days, one exclusively focused on…strawberries. As with our garlic plantings which occur later in October, our 2020 strawberry planting efforts will only bear fruit, so to speak, in 2021.

The strawberries in question are an “early” variety: planted now, they will weather the winter and fruit by mid-June – a truly early variety for Quebec growing conditions. Strawberries will be followed by greens for our last baskets – mustards, lettuces and other leafy curiosities – with garlic rounding out the cycle towards the end of October.

Succession plantings mark our time on the farm like the steady pace of a metronome, constant reminders of where we are in the season, how much longer the summer will be, how close to the end we are. That said, the end is not yet nigh, there is still much to be done – crops to be harvested , of course, but other chores like soil prep for the winter, the sowing of green manures, new plastic on our seedling greenhouse, the move of our old greenhouse to its new location – the list seems never-ending. We’ll do our best to move through it until the first snows, which will bring everything to an inevitable, and welcome, halt.

Meanwhile, there will be a nice variety of veggies in your basket again, including tomatoes, still, as well as the first of our fall crucifers, or pak choi. For those of you who recall the lacy leaves in June, these seem to have avoided close encounters with the flea-beetle, proof positive of the difference between a June brassica, struggling to fend off the unending assaults of its worst enemy, and its September or October cousin, growing carefree and unbothered, to the great relief of yours truly.

SEE YOU SOON.

September, When Hope (Still) Springs Eternal

Last week started with an autumn chill and ended with diluvian rains. September has indeed arrived and with it the increased risk of inclement weather. In our fields, the once vibrant hues of green are slowly giving way to browns and golds.  But September is also a month in which hope springs eternal, as summer lingers and vegetables continue to grow nicely. This is the kind of September I am hoping for, one where the sun’s rays warm leaves and roots even as a crisp coolness keeps predatory insects at bay.

With only a few seedling trays remaining to be transplanted to fewer still open beds, the line-up for the next two months is nearly complete: lots of leafy greens, but also a variety of emblematic root vegetables, the likes of which have provided sustenance through the long Quebec winters since time immemorial. And for those of you interested in these things, the new plots that we ploughed and sowed with oats and peas are doing very well, thank you (as you can see in the picture above). They mark the beginning of the next decade at Arlington Gardens.

Meanwhile, I just roasted our first spaghetti (‘Orangegetti’) squash of the season and all modesty aside, it was amazing : tasty, unctuous, a beautiful shade of orange within and without. And so we inaugurate September, anticipating the variety of winter squash which will follow in coming weeks. We have also just warehoused a bountiful onion harvest which we will be sharing with you in your upcoming fall baskets, starting with this week’s.

In closing, we wish you a great week and look forward to seeing you soon.

Farming for the Future

Organic farmers no longer really use ploughs in their ongoing field management. This millennial activity is no longer fashionable, much to the relief of defenders of soil conservation and subterranean biodiversity preservation. Nevertheless, when one wants to convert an old hay field to organic production, there are few options other than to till said field – a small price to pay for the long-term reward of expanded organic acreage.

And so it is that we have ploughed the large hay field adjacent to our existing vegetable fields: five new hectares of arable land that we will have to get to know, to work and to improve. All it took was a few hours, a plough with five mouldboards which we borrowed from a neighbouring organic farm, several passes with our disc harrow to break up the clods and smooth out the surface and today – Monday – a race against the clock to sow our first green manure before the rains in this evening’s forecast…

The end result is immensely satisfying : a vast area ready to go into production next year, an expansion in capacity that we had been envisaging for a while to enhance our fertilization and crop rotation planning. The deed is finally done, and we are eager to experience the benefits of reduced weed pressure in an old hayfield which has been harvested regularly over many years. In other words, our 2021 season has just begun!

This week’s basket is not unlike last week’s, albeit with watermelon replacing your previous cantaloupe. Watermelon is my favourite summer fruit, which we serve up the old-fashioned way – with seeds – so you can wax nostalgic and remember what watermelon tasted like before today’s seedless varieties made their appearance, when back porch/yard watermelon seed-spitting contests were the norm.

This week’s corn is a peaches-and-cream variety which we think you will appreciate as much as last week’s yellow corn. The current plan is to offer you one more week of corn after this, provided we are able to keep the raccoons at bay…

Taking Stock

It’s almost mid-season already, so both a review of what’s passed, and a preview of what’s to come, seem appropriate. As you may have noted, the first half of the season was not easy, successive heat waves and droughts having wreaked some havoc in the fields in May and June – particularly in our brassicacea beds where the flea-beetles feasted on almost everything, while our lettuces and beans were overrun by leafhoppers and our cucumbers wilted in the heat. As a result, you’ve seen far fewer of these vegetables in your baskets than usual. The same meteorological conditions also stressed our solanaceas (nightshades) pretty solidly : as a result, our peppers and tomatoes have been much slower to ripen than is their custom.

The good news, though, is that things are slowly returning to normal and we are anticipating a more clement second half of the season – firstly with welcome rains, secondly with the gradual, but thankfully certain, disappearance of seasonal pests. They have yet to depart, but within a few weeks the chilly nights of late August will be their signal to burrow back underground.

Almost surreptitiously, we have harvested all our garlic; we will be offering it up in your baskets several times over the balance of the season.  We’re also readying ourselves for our Italian (paste) tomato harvest on or around the third week of August – stay tuned.

Beets and carrots are on their way, most likely arriving within a couple of weeks. Two significant vegetable families will be making their appearance soon – namely, our conservation onions and our winter squash. Typically, they are harvested in late August, early September. They’re great fun, we harvest quite a few varieties of both which we are looking forward to sharing with you.

We are continuing to plant seedlings – for our fall harvests – which include ou last beets, our fall lettuces and many leafy brassicaceas which will be happy to see cooler temperatures begin to prevail. This year, we will be continuing our autumnal forays into leafy Asian greens, rapas, junceas, and more – we’ll tell you more about them in due course.

In closing, corn is upon us. Our fingers remain crossed (we wouldn’t want to jinx the next few weeks’ harvest), but we seem to have won our battle with the raccoons this year, thanks mostly to a pretty mean electric fence. Indeed, there will be cobs in your baskets this week.

 

August at Last

August at last! Not that its arrival signals the end of anything, really, but it does seem like something of a light at the end of the tunnel of our frustrations…August marks the beginning of some field cleaning (like house cleaning, only on a grander scale) as well as the start of fall plantings. It is also the month we sow our green manures, to ensure that even as we manage our fields in the present for the current season, we also have one foot in tomorrow’s fields as we prep for next year’s crop.

As if things weren’t busy enough, we’re focused on the gradual transformation of hayfields hitherto untouched by vegetables, along with intensive sowings of oats and peas in fields already harvested – and ongoing chores : harvesting, weeding, and fall plantings – of rutabagas, winter radishes, and japanese & regular turnips, to name just a few. There is little time for us to revel in summer, fall is just around the corner.

August is a month to be watchful: despite cooler nights, the days remain hot and humid. We’ll still be battling flea beetles with our nets, leafhoppers too and looking out for fungal diseases like powdery mildew in our winter squash, gray mould in our tomatoes…and more.

That said, August is also a month of plenty, when we can reward you for your patience and your civility. The solanacea trinity is with us, in addition to corn, melons and sll kinds of other delicious things you’ll find in your baskets in coming weeks.

Corn Patch Pressure

Although there are still one to two weeks remaining before we begin delivering corn in your baskets, the tension is rising in our corn patch. Long-standing farm members know whereof I speak : the rank smell I sniff when I walk through my corn field, a tell-tale cob here and there, gnawed bare. The pressure is increasing because my arch-nemesis is camped out on the edge of the cornfield, waiting to invade and to lay me low, along with my cobs.

We are locked in our customary stand-off, watching each other’s every move, tracking each other’s steps, assessing each other’s latest techniques. We are indeed at war, and while it remains of an undeclared sort, the stakes are high. My traps have been laid, the electric fence has been installed and prayers have been recited. For this farmer, victory is the only outcome possible…as much for said farmer’s mental health as for the unmitigated pleasure of our farm members.

At last, a real summer basket! It was about time, and even though it has been hot, we cannot outpace Mother Nature, who decided this year to delay the ripening of our ‘Glacier’ tomatoes until now. They are our earliest field tomatoes, an heirloom saladette variety, flavourful and delicious. Next week our cherry tomato plants will also begin to yield their fruit, followed by our Russian varieties and then, by late August, by our main season field tomatoes — a mix of heirloom varieties, beefsteak tomatoes and Italian paste tomatoes.

The A-Team

Last week I breathed a sigh of relief when Librado stepped off the plane, the last of our six Mexican employees to arrive. All told, it has taken an extra two months to obtain the necessary governmental authorizations for each of our Mexican employees to reach the farm. We have witnessed the effects of the pandemic firsthand, particularly as we have wanted to ensure that we provide our employees who have come from afar with the right conditions for a safe sojourn with us. Unlike the large farms making Covid headlines, our farm is small, and its human scale has made it possible for us to place each of our foreign employees in individual quarantine in apartments belonging either to friends (thank you Catherine and Jean!) or to our own children completing their studies in Montreal.

The late arrival of so many employees whose work is essential to the smooth running of our farm has been the source of many headaches and logistical challenges in the fields. We give our heartfelt thanks to the motley crew of teens and young twenty-somethings who lent more than a helping hand in May to get the season going against all odds, planting everything they could, setting up netting and irrigation lines. Notwithstanding their efforts, I knew in my heart of hearts that without the experience and resilience of our Mexican crew, this farm would not make it through the season.

I could go on at length about the reasons for our dependence on foreign workers, but that will have to keep for another time – the purpose of this email being only to provide a glimpse of the serious labour issues that plague agriculture in general and market farming in particular. Today, in Quebec as well as elsewhere across Canada, it is nearly impossible to produce fruits and vegetables without the valuable support of a seasonal foreign workforce. I may revisit this topic at a later date.

The good news is that our team is now complete : Librado will soon be joining Jhenrri, Crescencio, Gerardo, Crispin and Gregorio, supported by Djamel, Imad, Tarek, Arnaud, Julien and Émile, in addition to our basket and seedling crew – Yamina, Maïka and Emmanuelle. Of course you’ll see us at our market farmstands and our drop-off locations too, assisted by the two Sophies, Natalia, Alexis and Laurent. We’re proud of our A-team, and ever so grateful for their ongoing support.

The contents of this week’s baskets are not unlike those of last week, as we await the arrival of our solanaceas, whose growth continues apace. A notable novelty is our fennel, which can be eaten in a variety of ways – raw in a salad, roasted on the grill, cooked in a fish soup, or however else tickles your fancy.