Ingredient:
The Hands that Feed Us

The long awaited tomatoes are gradually ripening, and as much as we’d like to encourage them to ripen faster the first harvest typically is a teaser and doesn’t yield enough for everyone’s shares.

Get your salt shaker out. Our Early Girl dry-farmed tomatoes are almost ready.

A wave of new crops is at the cusp of maturing, and we like to stagger and rotate their harvests to not feel overwhelmed. Padron peppers need to be harvested every three days to not let them grow much larger than thumb size. Cherry and Early Girl tomatoes will, at first, only need to be harvested every 5-6 days, however a month from now we’ll be picking them everyday to keep up. Currently green beans are abundant, but extremely time consuming to pick.

Peppers galore. The Padrons are the taller plants on the far left.

The green beans are sandwiched in between the corn in the foreground and rows of raspberries.

With over 50 crops grown annually, it is important not to over plant to keep harvest schedules manageable. The danger of falling behind is that the quality of the harvest and the health of the plants are compromised. It isn’t easy, many are the variables and priorities we need to juggle, and as we approach the height of summer more crops are being added to the harvest list. Sometimes there just aren’t enough hours and working hands to keep up with Mother Nature.

Some of our field crew harvesting summer squash for Thursday’s shares.

A previous field of summer squash plants is now being prepped for new crops.

Soon the field pictured above will look like this one, with newly formed rows ready for transplants or seeding.

Recent chard transplants being irrigated.

Rows of basil, winter squash, and cucumbers, with the pepper field just beyond.

Last time I took a group of kids on a farm tour I stopped by the carrot patch and showed them how we dig and pull carrots out of the ground then tie them into a bunch with a rubber band. Digging for carrots almost rivals the excitement kids get when picking strawberries. There is something special about tugging on a bunch of leaves not knowing exactly what will appear out of the ground – like going treasure hunting.

A teen group participating in the potato harvest.

One of the kids asked me almost incredulously, “You dig all these carrots by hand? ” “We sure do, every single one of them”, I confirmed. Although we now have tractors and mechanical tools to help us, small scale organic vegetable and fruit farms like ours rely mostly on hand labor. It is a collective and manual effort – from sowing the seeds, planting, weeding, cultivating, watering, harvesting, washing, packing to finally delivering the shares.

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When it comes to working hands on this farm, I can’t think of anyone else than the incredibly dedicated group of people who work tirelessly to make it possible for us to enjoy a sampling of their effort. If your kitchen is anything like ours, a lot of hands will continue in the preparation and cooking of the freshly harvested crops, transforming them into a nourishing meal. To grow healthy food and help create a healthier food-system in our community, all of us can join hands – that’s what it takes!

If you look closely, you may be able to spot the long eared jackrabbit in the midst of the tomatoes.

 

We are all in it together – From the Ground Up!

The soils that should be saturated from winter rains right now are drying out instead. I notice that the “itch” I get at the beginning of every season to prepare the soil and start planting seems too early. After rejuvenating rains in December, we haven’t seen any precipitation. January should be the wettest month of the year, and it looks like it’s going to be one of our driest. Similar to last year, this worrisome drought has forced us to keep irrigating.

The blue sky is beautiful, yet it means irrigating crops like the ones pictured here is an ongoing necessity.

Along with every other farmer in California, I am pondering how to plan, adjust and adapt to climate change and the continuing drought conditions. With the increasingly unpredictable weather, I look to our soil to help maintain a healthy and resilient farm organism.

soil in hand

I am convinced that soil and plants hold the key to rebalancing the high CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. Through photosynthesis plants absorb CO2, turn it into sugars which help them grow and, maybe even more importantly, feed the soil microbes, like bacteria and fungi, in and around the root-zone. These soil microorganisms serve to protect plants and help them access nutrients and minerals that roots by themselves can’t reach. The carbon that was in the air is suddenly transferred back and stored into the soil where it originally came from. There is a direct link between growing nutritious and flavorful fruits and vegetables and nurturing and growing a healthy soil.

The earthworms pictured here are part of a larger soil network that supports the crops growing in the fields.

We mimic natural soil building processes through techniques such as composting, rotating crops and using cover crops, mulching, adding soil amendments, and following careful tillage practices. These techniques allow us to grow and harvest food without depleting but instead returning carbon, fertility, and water holding capacity back to the soil. We still have much to learn yet increasingly we can point to regenerative farming practices that build and improve soil to heal the land and the atmosphere, and at the same time supply us with abundant and healthier food.

A couple of the farm’s compost piles that are almost ready to be spread over the fields.

You and me, we are all stakeholders. We all eat and sit at the same table to figure out this important challenge, maybe the most important – healing our current unsustainable relationship with nature. Our food decisions are meaningful ways to make a difference, whether joining a local farm’s CSA, shopping at the farmer’s market, making locally sourced menu choices at a restaurant, or simply cooking and sharing a meal at home, these are simple but interconnected food solutions that contribute to a healthier local and regional food web.

Newbies on the Farm: a Bug, a Truck and a Cow!

Let’s start with the “bad bug” news. The prolonged heat wave we experienced last week may have extended the harvest of dry-farmed tomatoes, green beans and peppers for a few more weeks but on the flipside it also attracted a new exotic heat loving insect pest, a stink bug called Bagrada.

bagradapestThis African native has already spread to many parts of the world, and was first spotted in Southern California in 2008. With a preferential and voracious appetite for plants belonging to the mustard family (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, brussel sprouts, chinese cabbage, arugula, bok choi, etc.) it has recently arrived in the Central Coast. Warm, dry weather provides the perfect conditions for it to quickly multiply and spread. Last week’s heat wave must have been the best opportunity for the Bagradas to pay us their first visit. We first spotted them on a broccoli plant in the Discovery Program garden, and yesterday we could also see them munching on our second and still young planting of brussel sprouts. Half of the field was already affected. Without natural enemies and no effective organic control methods yet identified, we are facing a challenging situation. Many farmers in warmer inland areas have reported serious damage, especially to young plants. Only colder and wetter weather, something we are all praying for this winter, is our best hope to slow down the Bagrada invasion.

bella2On a more positive note, last week we welcomed the arrival of Bella, our first Milking Cow. Bella is owned by a group of members, and lives in the pastures together with our ponies. I milk her twice a day, and she has been giving an abundance of delicious creamy milk. My wife Constance is right when she questions my sanity of adding another project to an already filled-out life. I always dreamt of having a milking cow, and now that I have reached middle age I don’t believe in driving a sports car or acting any younger than I should, so why not let unfulfilled dreams come true. Writing my part of the newsletter might be bit compromised, though. I like to write early in the morning, the same time Bella needs to be milked. I hope you all understand!!

LEFtrucksTalking of dreams – here is another that came true last week. The farm at long last has its own refrigerated delivery truck. It couldn’t have come at a better time. With farm deliveries happening almost every single day of the week, many going all the way to San Francisco, we now have both more flexibility in our schedules and, most importantly, our produce quality is less compromised. This truck, a 2015 Mitsubishi, is brand new. It gives us better gas mileage, has no harmful emissions (water vapor and Nitrogen), and replaces our older trucks which will retire to serve more local and on-farm hauling needs.

The new truck’s refrigerator unit can be run separately, allowing the shares to be stored in it overnight so there is more room in our cooler and the delivery team (Luis on the right, Victor on the left) can get on the road earlier since the truck doesn’t need to be loaded in the morning.

My Notebook – Walking the Land

On my field walks I never tire of digging, tasting, smelling, touching, and observing the constant changes taking place on the farm, whether it’s in the fields, orchards, or non-cultivated wild spaces.

Right now, as we approach the Summer Solstice, the farm is a continuously changing canvas of activity and fertile growth. I try to walk the land we farm every day, otherwise it’s easy to miss things. In the coming days, if temperatures do climb into the 90’s as predicted, several crops will need to be watched carefully since they will ripen and mature much faster. Green beans, still tiny right now, can double in size within a day, or some of the apricots, already turning orange in color but still hard to the touch, will most likely be ready to harvest.

Almost, but not quite, ripe.

Daily field walks also help me identify and ward off damaging diseases or insects early on. Especially with flea or cucumber beetles, I like to cover young seedlings with row covers or make timely applications of kaolin clay to minimize their damage.

Row covers protect vulnerable seedlings from pests.

On my walks I always check the soil moisture in the fields. The easiest and quickest way is to use my hands, digging into the top 4-5 inches of soil and feeling the moisture by kneading and sifting the soil through my fingers. At the same time, while I check the moisture level, I determine whether a crop needs cultivating. Cultivating the soil is not only critical in aerating the soil to increase water and nutrient uptake, but also to remove competing weeds.

Digging in the dirt to test soil moisture and friability.

Weeding rows of recently transplanted seedlings.

During Saturday’s community farm day, I spotted a few limp and wilted looking potato plants while digging for these underground treasures with the kids. I have seen this often enough to know that a gopher was at work. The “rascal”, I noticed, had advanced at least 10 feet down a bed of red potatoes. Typically I would take note to trap him, but since we are planning to harvest that block this week anyway he will continue to enjoy a few more days of indulgence.

The potato harvest has begun.

The joy of walking the fields is that there are always new or unexpected things to discover, whether it’s the tiny clusters of grapes hanging off the vines starting to swell in size, watching the red-tail hawks circling above the fields or simply enjoying the flavors of a fully ripened yellow raspberry.

Clusters of young Concord grapes.

The first golden raspberries.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Foraging and U-Picking the Abundance of Summer

Summer foraging is one of the great pleasures here on the farm, and with the abundance of harvest-able crops right now it doesn’t take much of a field walk to fill a bushel basket and one’s tummy all at the same time. A typical walk for me starts in the apple orchards.  August is a special time when the trees hang heavy with fully sized apples maturing and showing their true colors as they ripen.

Fuji Apples

In order to anticipate when it’s time to start picking, I do a lot of sampling from different locations on both the individual trees and around the orchard. This year it’s especially tricky since the spring bloom spanned over a much longer period, resulting in uneven maturity and ripeness. I pay close attention to the early varieties that usually ripen sometime this month, choosing apples with good color to test for sugar content while at the same time evaluating their texture and flavor. The best judge is my daughter, who loves apples and is not shy to tell me which she likes best. The Sommerfelds and Pink Pearls are the ripest, with the highest sugar content. They’ll be ready to start picking by the end of the week. The Galas and McIntosh are not far behind – probably 7-10 days out.

Gala Apples

Heading back to the barn with half-munched-on apples in my arms, I can’t resist making a detour to snack on a row of ripe, still unpicked red raspberries. Lucky me, I spot an empty crate on the side of one field which lets me free up my hands to load up on peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers and of course my favorite Sungold cherry tomatoes. I am set for lunch!

Summer Farm Lunch

The perfect summer lunch on the farm.

It’s a team effort and dynamic dance right now to keep up with the workload. With such abundance in the fields, we all know, now’s the time when we have to maximize our return. We check on crops daily, sometimes even more often, to assess both quality and quantity to project and spread the harvest for our weekly commitments to CSA members, customers at farmer’s markets, and wholesale and retail accounts. Days are long to keep up with all the harvesting, packing, loading, and delivering. Fieldwork can’t fall behind as we are already preparing for fall and winter. Timing is everything, and little delays and breakdowns can be stressful when dealing with an already full plate.

The best way to experience the farm’s bounty at this point in the season is to come and visit the farm. This Saturday, August 16th, from 10-3 join us for our first Dry-farmed Tomato U-Pick of the Season. If you can’t make it this Saturday, we will have a 2nd U-Pick on August 30th to benefit the farm’s Discovery Program. At this time of year we won’t limit the U-Pick to just dry-farmed tomatoes, but encourage you to also explore other parts of the farm where you can pick favorite crops such as Raspberries, Blackberries, and Cherry Tomatoes. HOPE YOU CAN MAKE IT – SEE YOU ALL ON THE FARM.

The Joy of Community Farm Days

The French called tomatoes “pomme d’amour” or Love Apples, and I agree, what is there not to love about tomatoes – this year’s crop of dry-farmed tomatoes with it’s “alluring” deep red colors are bursting with “seductive” rich flavors.

tomato upick 8.14-7

Saturday’s Tomato U-Pick was testimony to how much we love tomatoes. The image that brings a smile to my heart is of a baby girl accompanying her dad, who is carrying two large bags of freshly harvested tomatoes, while she is munching on a large red tomato with juice dripping down her chin and shirt. “This is the first tomato she ever tasted” her dad commented.

tomatoupick8-14-18

As a farmer this may be the most rewarding moment – to experience the joy and pleasure at the completion of a crop’s lifecycle, tended from seed to maturity.

When children come to the farm they can engage their senses to discover the pleasures of real food. With Live Earth Farm’s Discovery Program, we have expanded our ability to reach out to children and youth in this county by stewardship. Last year in addition to our monthly community farm days and seasonal celebrations, over 1500 children and young adults came to the farm, attending farm tours, workshops, summer-camps, and curriculum based work-leadership programs.

“Love Apples galore, come and get some more!”

Join us for another Community Farm Day on August 30th from 10:00 AM – 3:00 PM.

This will be a great day to enjoy the farm and directly support our educational efforts, as 20% of the proceeds will benefit the Live Earth Farm Discovery Program.

With apples reaching their peak of ripeness, we will open the U-Pick to our Royal Gala Orchard as well as the Dry-farmed Tomato field. The day will include tractor rides, farm tours, apple cider pressing, and child friendly farm games and activities. Invite friends and family; help us spread the word as we invite everyone to enjoy a nourishing, fun and bountiful summer day on the farm.

Click here for more pics from last Saturday’s Community Farm Day & U-pick

 

Winter Reflections

After a few weeks of relative quiet here on the farm we are excited to resume our weekly delivery of winter shares. My own rhythm has slowed considerably and mimics that of the farm. Plants move nutrients more slowly during winter, which results in often sweeter and more pronounced flavors. Carrots become crisper, and when temperatures dip into the 30’s brassicas, like kale, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower and collard greens respond by converting starches into sugars, increasing their brix concentration (brix is a measure of solids and sugars in the plant’s sap). A higher brix level protects plants from freeze damage and sweetens their taste.

Pictured here is a field we are currently harvesting from – chard in front, red russian kale in the middle, and lacinato (dino) kale in the back.

While the earth is in its seasonal slumber I give myself permission to dream, reflect, meet people I normally don’t get to see during the growing season, and of course get a little more sleep. I ponder what the dance will be like for the upcoming main growing season. For sure we’ll have uncertainties and challenges to face, whether it’s unpredictable rainfall and temperature patterns, exotic insect pests like the new brassica loving Bagrada stinkbug, or an increasingly tenuous groundwater supply. While the world around us is filled with complexities and contradictions, farming is very grounding. The reality of farming with its ceaseless dynamic of change and uncertainty requires steadfast perseverance offering both hope and caution at the same time.

Winter is a time of cover crops and leafless (apple) trees.

Looking at the seed catalogs as we craft this year’s crop plan the farm is a beautiful canvas of possibilities, and that familiar eagerness to jump on new projects stirs inside of me. Soon the buds on the trees will start swelling, I already see the first flower buds forming on the strawberries, and the green house is starting to become active again. The dry weather allowed us to get some field planting done, and this week we started pruning the apple trees.  Before we know it’ll be spring and we’ll surrender once again to another seasonal call to tend to Mother Nature’s rewarding abundance.

Lettuce seedlings almost ready for transplanting.

These red russian kale seedlings are being “hardened off” outside the green house before they get planted in their field.

 

 

What’s on your plate can make a difference

El Pajaro Dinner 1On Earth Day like on any other day most of us eat 1-3 meals. Eating a meal, this humble ritual, affects not only our own physical health and well-being but collectively, as a human community, it is arguably the most important activity affecting the health of our planet.

Most of us “Eaters” are so removed from the actual practice of growing and raising food that for the majority, food is nothing but a commodity– expecting it to be there when we want it, continuously produced on some unknown farm, by unknown farming practices, performed by unknown people.

Food for the most part is an abstract idea until we physically take it off the shelf or see it on a plate in front of us. This state of alienation has welcomed an industrialized food-system, focused on producing large quantities of food for the highest profit. It in turn has lowered the quality of the food we eat, diminished our quality of life, and degraded much of the natural environment that sustains us.

marketstandWhat nourishes our passion for farming is to share the results of our efforts as we pack them into CSA shares, offer them at the farmer’s markets or provide them to local stores and restaurants for people to enjoy. There is an inherent sense of gratitude and pleasure when it’s time to pull a mature carrot, red beet or potato out of the soil. The same is true when it comes to tasting a sweet strawberry, tomato, raspberry or apple picked fresh off a plant.

As a farmer I like all who enjoy the fruits of our efforts to know that growing plants for food, starting from seed, is a complex biological process governed by nature’s variable and often unpredictable conditions. To encourage a better understanding of farming, it has always been a guiding principle to open the farm to our community to experience and understand how and where their food is grown. It is why over the course of the season we offer many educational events and festivities to experience the seasonality of the crops.

I am ultimately hopeful that the way we choose to eat, building healthier relationships to both land and food, will make a meaningful difference in the well-being of our own lives and that of the planet.

 

Hot and Dry – A Season of Uncertainty!

“Of all the natural resources, water has become the most precious…In an age when man has forgotten his origins and is blind even to the most essential needs for survival, water along with other resources has become the victim of his indifference.”   Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

Overhead sprinklers irrigating a field of carrots.

In farming anticipating, adjusting, and adapting to the variables mother nature has in store is what makes every season unique and different. This week’s heat wave is a good example.

To prevent heat stress and keep plants, animals, and people hydrated is a challenge when temperatures reach 100 degrees. We start at 6 o’clock in the morning to pick our strawberries, currently the most vulnerable of our crops, then move on to harvest the greens followed by root and stem crops. The harvested crops are immediately brought to the barn, washed, and stored in our walk-in cooler.

The farm’s main well pump is pictured here (it’s the blue thing with the white tank next to it).

Recently transplanted lettuce seedlings being irrigated.

We are blessed with an abundant source of groundwater, which has to be pumped from wells, some as deep as 400 feet or more. We trust that water is available when we need it. Like blood in the body, water is pumped and directed through an intricate network of underground pipes to every field and orchard on the farm.

Pumped groundwater arriving at the surface.

Irrigation pipes are constantly moved from row to row to make sure the entire field gets sprinkled.

A failing water pump on a hot day like today can be devastating to the health and survival of sensitive crops such as strawberries and leafy greens. With the bulk of our spring plantings now in the ground, we are tending close to 40 different crops all needing water. Clemente, our irrigation manager is working long hours, up before dawn and working late into the night to beat the heat.  He is constantly moving around from field to field, hauling and setting up sprinkler pipe, adjusting the water volume and pressure by turning valves on and off, and making sure there are no leaks in the system. Especially frustrating are the gophers that chew through drip-lines in the strawberry fields.

Crops like these peppers are set up with drip lines for precise irrigating.

In this picture you can see where the water is perfectly placed (darker soil) to keep this squash plant hydrated.

A drought year is a stark reminder that we have grown foolishly accustomed to water that is available whenever we want it. We have  converted an otherwise arid landscape into a highly-populated, abundant food-producing region. The climate is changing and we have no choice but to adapt and change with it. This year’s drought has left several hundred thousand acres of farmland fallow, and it’s anyone’s guess what the future of farming will look like. In the meantime, we can only hope that we have the ability to manage this precious resource equitably for all.

Early morning light picks out a precious drop of water.

Perfect Ripeness

The most exquisite experience on the farm at the moment is to pick a perfectly ripe apricot right off the tree. The craving for these delicate, aromatic, and sweet fruit is almost irresistible, just trying to write about it makes me want to walk out and get one.

Apricots 5.28.14

Perfect ripeness is hard to describe, it is the fruit that calls out, the fruit that gives a little when touched and releases itself into one’s hand. I will scan a tree and look for the telling colors of rich orange and red, any hint of green close to the stem means the apricot can still ripen a few more days. Once I set my eyes on that perfectly colored fruit I will gently touch, squeeze, and tug all at the same time. When fully ripe, it will just drop into the palm of my hand. You ask me what I love about farming – it is this nourishing experience of being rewarded by the land we steward.

Apricots Item

Come join us on the farm this Saturday to celebrate the Summer Solstice, and experience for yourself the reward of picking and enjoying a fruit directly from the plants and trees growing in our fields and orchards.

Saturday, June 21st – Solstice Celebration and Community U-picks

12:00 pm – 5:00pm:  Community U-picking – strawberries, raspberries, and apricots

5:00 pm – Dark: Celebration and Potluck

Parking: Please follow the signs.

Parking for the Strawberry and Raspberry U-picks is at our 1275 Green Valley Rd Entrance (click for directions)

Parking for the Apricot U-picking, Celebration and Potluck is at our 172 Litchfield Lane Entrance (click for directions)

Overflow parking area at 1275 Green Valley Road. Parking at 1275 Green Valley Road means you will have to walk a ways – about a quarter mile, including a short distance up a fairly steep hill – to get to the main area of events.  Save gas and carpool!!

Remember to bring jackets and sweaters as it gets cool later in the day, and a flashlight for navigating back to your car if you stay until after dark.

Potluck Details

  • Everyone please bring something to share – an entree, a salad, a dessert – whatever you like! We never organize it more than that and always seem to have a nice variety.
  • How much to bring? If in doubt, bring more, as we always seem to eat it all up! 😉 In all my years at Solstice Celebrations I have not seen folks going home with lots of left-overs!
  • Please bring a serving utensil to go with your dish!
  • Put your name on your dish and serving utensil with some masking tape or something, in case they get separated, and so we know who they belong to if they get inadvertently left behind.
  • Please provide an ingredient list for your dish on a piece of paper or 3×5 card so folks with food allergies or special diets will know what they can and cannot eat.
  • Where to put your pot-luck items when you arrive? We will have several tables for placing your pot-luck items on out near the fire circle. If you have something that needs to be refrigerated, you can pop it into our walk-in cooler to the right of the breezeway in our “upper barn” (Litchfield Ln Entrance). If it just needs to stay cool (not in the heat of your car), you can also put it on a table inside the breezeway/classroom area until pot-luck time. If you arrive closer to pot-luck time, simply bring it to the table area. We have extremely limited facilities for re-heating anything, so please don’t plan on that if you can help it.
  • Beverages – There will be water and lemonade, but feel free to bring additional beverages for your own consumption or to share.
  • We encourage you all to bring your own picnic plates, cups, bowls, silverware etc. in order to minimize unrecyclable garbage. We will have a washing station, where you can rinse them when you are through eating.
  • And bring a blanket to picnic on, or your own chairs if you prefer.

SolsticeBonfire