When we planted our strawberries in early 2016, we were excited by the prospect of eating fruit this summer – we’ve always been vegetable farmers, so it’s exciting new territory for us. For the first year of most fruit crops, growers are encouraged to pick the flowers off of new plants in order to allow energy to be directed to root development. It wasn’t easy to convince ourselves to forgo the fruit, but we obediently followed the instructions. Turns out it was good advice because we are currently flooded with perfect berries! What a delight it is to see new red fruit on the plants every time we walk by the patch at the back of our vegetable field! The berry perfume is just intoxicating.
I am still further amazed by the fact that the fruit we’ve been harvesting is so perfect. As you know, we never apply “-icides” to any of the food we grow here (pesticides, herbicides, fungicides), and Organic, No-Spray fruit is even harder to grow than it’s equivalently-raised vegetables. That sweet aroma attracts any number of pests, from insects to rodents, and berries that grow low to the ground and have very thin skin are susceptible to fungal disease and rot issues due to soil proximity and lack of airflow. Even with organically-approved fungicides/pesticides, commercial organic growers have a much riskier time growing fruit than conventional growers. Understanding these realities, I was fully (and happily!) anticipating a whole lot of damaged but delicious fruit that we could make into jam or freeze for smoothies. The fact that we have enough beautiful berries for our freezer and more for customers is a delight.
As we talked about all this over strawberries, Jonathan reminded me of the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen” list that identifies the top dozen foods with the heaviest pesticide load at the grocery store. I checked their website for the updated 2017 list and guess what crop comes in at number 1?? Yup… Strawberries. You’ll notice that there are many fruit crops on this list, sprayed heavily for the reasons I mentioned above. That’s a particularly gross situation for those thin-skinned berries like raspberries and strawberries because the “-icides” soak into the fruit’s flesh and can’t be washed off the way they can be from an apple or plum. Plenty of vegetables show up on that list too, so be sure to adjust your shopping habits if you care to avoid eating chemicals with dinner!
Thanks to all who came out to our first markets of the season! It’s great to be back in the swing of “slingin’ vegetables”! From one week to the next we went from wearing coats, hats and gloves, to sweating just standing still under the tent. We must be in New England.
With the 90+ degree days this weekend, we have been laying out our irrigation hoses and drip tape as fast as we can to keep the plants going. We use primarily drip tape which allows us to conserve water by only dripping it right by the plant’s roots. It also means that the foliage stays dry which helps keep fungal diseases off the plants. Certain crops like lettuce mix and arugula are “direct seeded”, meaning we put the seeds directly into the ground instead of starting them as plugs in the greenhouse. Those direct seeded crops need to stay moist until they germinate. To achieve this we run a line of small 12-inch-tall sprinklers down the beds, and saturate the soil every day until we see them sprout. It’s quite a system that, as a whole, amounts to quite the labyrinth of hoses running all throughout our field. This week we are teaching the crew how to lay the lines, time the irrigation, listen for leaks and patch them. This is in addition to learning to prune tomatoes, wash and pack veggies for market, stake peas, feed goats and chickens, water the green house, etc, etc, etc. I remember the frantic learning overload of my first few weeks as an apprentice in Maine. What a whirlwind! We appreciate them hanging in there and learning along with us.
The official countdown to good food has begun, and it’s time to mark those calendars! We are mere weeks away from the start of it all:
- Hartford’s West End Market starts June 6th
- Sweet Acre CSA Delivery to HBC starts June 8th
- Bridgeport’s Black Rock Market Starts June 10th
- Local CSA Share pickup at the Farm starts June 10th
We are filling these long spring days with a wild mix of farm activities at Sweet Acre. Our greenhouse is maxed out with baby plants, from kale to onions to tomatoes, and everything in between. Bed preparation is ongoing as we strive to create perfect conditions for our transplants. We have decided to chisel plow our beds to address soil compaction, followed by fertility amendments and a healthy dose of compost. Last week we got our head lettuce, kale, collards, spinach, carrots, radish, turnip in the ground. This week is the Week of the Allium, including red, yellow & white onions, leeks, scallions, and shallots, all to be hand-transplanted.
This weekend we moved our massive Rolling Thunder greenhouse into it’s new position. It is designed to roll from one spot to another on tracks, so that the soil doesn’t degrade, as can happen in a stationary house. This was our first big move, and we are so relieved it’s done and the house is still standing – all thanks to great farmer friends who came over to provide both physical and emotional support. Now that it’s in its new position, we will prepare the ground for our first round of tomato transplants, and then a whole new countdown to cherry tomato season can begin.
In our “spare time” we are building intern cabins by the brook and the pond in anticipation of our summer crew arriving later this month. We’re looking forward to a few extra sets of hands!
Oh! And baby goats were born 2 weeks ago, so when we need a break we are fully entertained by their adorable shenanigans.
Hoping life is full and bright for all of you this spring. And looking forward to seeing you at markets and CSA pickups very soon!
Charlotte & Jonathan
As we prepare to make the major gear shift into the growing season, we’re soaking up the last bits of the off-season here on the farm and out in the community. Learning is a major element of the wintertime on the small farm, as there is more to know about growing plants than one could learn from scratch in a lifetime. So we take out our books and look over our notes and go to conferences.
Last weekend was the CT-NOFA Winter Conference in Danbury where a good friend was presenting on his systems of no-till farming. I have mentioned this practice before and our aspirations to incorporate it on our own farm. Well, this neighbor is the man you want to learn from! He and his wife have been experimenting and perfecting the practice for 10 years now, and he presented his methods in detail to an eager group of ~100 farmers. We have heard this talk at least 3 times before, but every time there is more information to glean, more relevance to our experience. And so we keep coming back. The first step is to rewire one’s focus as a grower – making soil health and biological life the priority instead of the plants. The idea being that if your soil is not alive with microbes, earth worms, and bacteria, your plant’s roots don’t have enough to eat, and can’t reach their full potential of health and productivity. Makes sense, no?
Our culture thinks of dirt as dirty, and the unknown as scary, which can lead a farmer to focus on the pretty green plant above ground, rather than the health and relationships below the soil line. I can clearly remember the moment of mental recalibration when I began to understand that the surface of the ground is not the end of the story: below our feet is a whole additional universe of life with which to coexist. Back in our years of gardening, I can recall moments when I feared what I might find as I stuck my fingers deep into the soil to transplant a seedling – as if it were the ocean and a shark might be there to bite off my hand. I can tell you wholeheartedly that what I have seen and felt and learned about soil over the last 8 years has been some of the most empowering and exciting stuff I’ve ever come across, and never once has anything bitten me!
The curative power of mycelium, the cooperative community dynamics of microbes, the fortification of the soil by strong root systems… the first time you hear about these things it seems like magic! The realization that it is soil science really doesn’t do much to take the miraculous edge off of it. And the contagion of well-being is far-reaching: rich soils that are teeming with life create strong root systems that can fully access the nutrition a plant needs, enabling it to produce the most nutrient-dense vegetable harvestable from that plant. This wholesome food is then eaten by humans and animals. If the soil is degraded through mismanagement, the whole system is degraded, including our health. Pretty epic stuff. And so we walked out of this talk last weekend (for the 4th time) stunned and enthused to do better.
Thankfully farmers are keen to share their knowledge, breakthroughs and best practices with each other (what other business owners do you know that share trade secrets with their direct competition??). And thankfully, these growing practices don’t take much money to implement, no real fancy machines or high-tech tools. But they do require what can often be the hardest thing to come by: a willingness to challenge our own truths.
It may be an unpopular position, but I for one am thrilled to see some snow on the ground! I’m a born and bred New Englander who feels downright uncomfortable when a season just gets skipped over like it seemed Winter would on those 60-degree January days. We’re counting on snow events like last week’s to recharge the depleted groundwater supplies after last summers’ drought. There is also this neat thing that snow does as it’s falling from the clouds – it captures atmospheric nitrogen and holds onto it as it covers the ground like a winter mulch. When the snow melts in the spring, that nitrogen seeps into the thawed soil and is available as a nutritional boost our first crops of the season! Pretty cool.
I will admit that the spring-like days this winter have been put to good use here in South Lebanon: we spent a few days applying cow manure to our field in the hopes of coaxing some outstanding yields from our plants this year! It’s hard to overstate what an asset our dairy neighbors are, enabling us to amass some serious piles of sh*t on any day of the week that suits us. Some of this invaluable material goes right onto the field raw in the Fall, to decompose and sink in over the winter. Lots of it goes into a big pile mixed in with leaves and woodchips to be turned by tractor and allowed to break down into compost over time. That compost is also a highly valuable source of organic matter and nutrients for our soil.
On the less outdoorsy days lately, we have been choosing plant varieties, organizing our crop rotation, mapping our beds, and ordering seeds for the coming season. It’s a task that never gets old from one season to the next. We’re always trying to stay ahead of the curve, to keep things as exciting as they are delicious on the stand or in the box. Between buying seeds and field amendments, crop supplies, Organic Certification renewal and all the normal bills that don’t only come seasonally, now is the time when expenses are highest and income is lowest. We are sustained in a big way by our CSA members who put their trust in our skills as growers. We understand that it is a big commitment on your part and are constantly impressed that there are people like you who care about the longevity of Sweet Acre Farm.
If you are thinking of joining either our box share program, or just want a CSA debit account at the farmer’s market, now would be the best time to join!
As always we are here for answering questions about specifics, or to deliver diatribes about all the benefits that small farms share with their communities and the larger environment, or to scare you into patronage with a detailed description of the demoralizing, dehumanized, environmentally degrading, wasteful, industrial, pathologically profit motivated, corporatized food system that dominates America’s gastronomical reality (if that’s your thang). Just give us a call, drop a note, or a check with the appropriate CSA form found here.
Eat in good health!
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At Sweet Acre Farm we care about our soils and your health. For more on our growing practices and approach to farming, please visit our How & Why We Grow page.
We’d love to be your farmers!