Our friends at Shundahai Farm in Mansfield called a couple of weeks ago to offer us 15 semi-standard apple trees that were the surplus from their own orchard planting. These trees were grafted and planted in a nursery bed at their farm. So we dug them up and are now digging our own 3-foot holes, to be gently back-filled around the roots with azomite, indigenous micro-organisms from the forest behind our farm, compost, and good old soil. We have all our fingers and toes crossed that they take and bear us fruit for many years to come.
The decision-making process of choosing and planting perennials is one that feels very different from that of the annual vegetables we have mapped out and planted every season for the last 4 years. These plants – fruit trees, berry bushes, asparagus and rhubarb crowns, flower bulbs – will be with us, in some cases, for the rest of our days. They will not be tilled-in as crop residue at the end of the season. They will need things from us – pruning, mulching, weeding – at very different times of the year than annual crops.
And so it feels like a more profound decision to decide where these new and exotic (to us) plants should be placed. But who has time for profundity on a farm in April?? I am chuckling thinking back over our brief (but very sincere!) moments of solemnity, looking at each other over the twiggy branches of a sapling propped in a hole by the compost pile, brows creased, shovel in hand…you get the idea.
These apple trees are the first on a long wish-list of perennials to be planted on our farm. Over the winter we perused the FedCo Trees catalog, and circled almost everything they had to offer. This May we will go up to Maine to visit old friends from our apprenticeship days, and to partake of the FedCo Trees sale. We are hoping someone there will talk us down to a reasonable purchase!
Jon Bunker, the head of FedCo Trees, has written much about his “functional orchard” in the catalog he curates. It is an approach to raising fruit trees not in a manicured set of rows, but in a “semi-organized chaos” of native plants, herbs and flowers. He only weeds a 12-inch area around the base of his trees, and lets most everything else do its thing. He has found that this riot of smell and color throughout his orchard confuses most of the insect pests that typically plague the trees. Incredibly interesting! Now guess which CT farm has just incorporated “wild” sections into their long-term field plan…
As first generation farmers, the constant learning required of us in order to actually grow anything has always been part of the draw. It is thrilling to spend the winter reading about agricultural techniques new and old, and then try to replicate them in our own fields come spring. It might not always work out, but we always learn something. And when it does works out, there’s nothing quite like that feeling.
Pear in March
Cedar hedgerow (good for animal shade)
This big ash sits in the middle of the property and I was sure that it would have to go. But now I really do like it, and the shade it casts over the greenhouse in the summer is limited to the seedlings that don’t want it so hot to begin with.
I am removing the majority of the pine grove, but plan on using as much material as I can for both building projects and chips as a major part of our composting.
We also have a pear tree, a hedgerow of cedars, shagbark hickories, and oaks. All these species are “useful”, from fence posts, to tool handles and firewood. But I hope as we exert our will on these 6 acres, we keep as wide a perspective as possible and don’t stop at a narrow definition of “usefulness”.
I just polished off last night’s left-overs of pasta bolognese made with 2 jars of home grown Sweet Acre tomatoes. Every bite tasted like summer, and, not only did it make me want to brag about it, it started me musing about the wonders of preserving food and what a feasible thing it is to eat so well in the winter.
As ironic as it sounds coming from a vegetable farmer, I’m not a very enthusiastic cook. I’m proficient, but I don’t relish the daily task of inventing and cooking meals, even with the freshest ingredients right at my fingertips! An abomination, I know.
I do, however, relish the larger and less incessant task of preserving the summer’s harvest for the winter, when the delightfully fresh ingredients are a vague, sunny memory. For some reason, the idea of chopping pounds and pounds of veggies to simmer for hours on the stove top in the summer heat is more appealing to me than the “daily grind” of cooking dinner. Call me crazy – I wouldn’t argue.
On the farm we tend to do more freezing than canning. It is less time (and gas) consuming, and we have the luxury of 3 chest freezers in the garage. Plus, by putting liquids (like sauces and soups) in zip lock bags, you can stack them flat on top of each other in the freezer so they take up very little room. For those of you who just rolled your eyes and groaned about the fact that you would never be able to fit a chest freezer in your house, be aware that there are smaller models available (for example). If you have a garage or a basement, you really don’t have much of an excuse!
Items that I freeze a lot of for winter consumption include:
Cherry tomatoes (whole, like berries)
Vegetable soups (tomato & pepper, winter squash, gazpacho, etc., etc., etc.)
Cooking greens (Kale, chard, collards, spinach, etc.)
Fresh Chevre (no kidding!)
Canning food in mason jars is a more traditional method that may take longer, but requires no super powers (contrary to popular opinion), and leaves you with a beautiful product to display on shelves anywhere in your house. No special appliance required, just a canning pot, jars and a few inexpensive gadgets (easily found via Google search). As of yet I have not canned with a pressure canner, so have no advice on that here.
Items I usually can include:
Sweet tomato chutney
Apple & pear sauce
Pickling is a third method of food preservation I’ve tried with some success. Since recipes usually include lots of vinegar, citrus and/or sugar there is limited need for all the boiling associated with canning. All the same jars, lids and gadgets though.
Things I’ve pickled include:
Cucumber pickles (Bread and Butter have been more successful)
Any vegetable suitable for Kimchi (Napa cabbage, choi, radish, hakurei turnip, etc.)
The above is a very limited introduction to what can be accomplished through food preservation! I am myself no expert, just proficient at a few select recipes that help relieve the pressure induced by inevitable surpluses on the farm. Because, man is it depressing to throw cases of cucumbers and tomatoes on the compost pile!
Make your farmer smile this season by buying something in bulk and trying food preservation out for yourself. The smile on your face when you crack open a jar of summer time tomatoes in frigid January will be equally as big.
Putting Food By; Hertzberg, Vaughan, Greene
The Art of Fermentation; Katz
The Joy of Pickling; Ziedrich
The Joy of Jams, Jellies & Other Sweet Preserves; Ziedrich