This summer was fantastic. Every tomato we pulled off the vine, cracked and blemished to beautiful perfection, ended up on someone’s plate or got jarred up for future use. Agricola canned 4,000# of tomatoes this season which really made all the effort into growing these love apples more then worth it. Over 800# of hot peppers have been smoked and fermented to turn into hot sauce or pickled and preserved. Jalapeño pickles anyone? Napa cabbage was made into kimchi and the overabundance of zucchini and cucumbers were made into fermented pickles. Espelette peppers have been dried and are ready to be ground into chili flakes. Having an outlet for our produce and adding value has really helped our bottom line and gets my wheels turning on what we can grow for next year that can be turned into a delicious preserve. We also grow storage crops to extend our season. Black Spanish radishes are spicy and delicious during the winter when you need an extra kick to your meal. Watermelon radishes are beautiful sliced thinly in a salad. Purple Top turnips keep very well in our cooler and can be roasted, whipped, or pureed. Carrots, cabbages, daikon radishes, and winter squash will keep our season going through the winter.
This year we decided to raise some lambs on pasture to feature as a special at Agricola. We fenced in four acres of pasture with electric line on the perimeter and ran splitter fences to divide the pasture into equal thirds. This way we could easily create smaller paddocks and create a nice rotational grazing plan. In the Spring time when we got the lambs we were a bit concerned about coyotes. Rather then get a dog or a lama we decided that we would get two steers. The steers were one year old when we got them from a local farmer friend. They were only raised on hay and grass. Once they arrived the instantly bonded with the lambs. They were the protection we were looking for and added a security need for the lambs. We rotated them around the pasture throughout the year, always providing shade and fresh water. When it came down to sending them off to slaughter it was peaceful. Since they were trained to the electric fence and used to human contact they practically walked right onto the trailer. I had to do a little coaxing by holding up the electric rope we used throughout the season and walk towards them. Do not worry, the electric rope was not electrified at that time, however they respond to it the same. When the meat came back from the slaughter house it looked wonderful. The lamb was tender and had great flavor. Our butcher, Dan, put a different cut each night of the week on the menu at Agricola. Once it sold out then that was all. It was an amazing experience to see this happen from field to fork. I experience it with vegetables, but usually the protein steals the show. Next month we will be featuring our pasture raised hogs. It was been a great first time experience raising livestock and I hope to incrementally build up our livestock program each season.
I love trying new varieties of vegetables. When I got some seed from a farmer friend for the Espelette pepper I immediately put it into our crop plan to make sure it got seeded in the greenhouse and had a designated spot out in our field. When you grow over 200 varieties of vegetables it can be easy to look over one or two if it is not put into a plan and written down on paper. It has only taken me a couple years to figure that out. We planted the Espelette pepper out into the field and it has produced well. After doing some research on the pepper I found a strong cultural connection attached. Espelette, France is a town that claims this pepper for their own. They dry the pepper and make hot pepper flakes. People across the whole town hang strands of peppers on the sides of their house to dry them. They have a harvest festival and the whole town relies on this pepper. I find this fascinating and would like to discover more cultural traditions attached to raising food. Here at our farm we are drying the pepper as well. I am excited to see if I can save the seed year after year and bring the cultural tradition from France to New Jersey.
This season has rolled along nicely. We are producing about 1000# of tomatoes a week and our pepper and eggplant harvest has been excellent. We have managed to have carrots at the market every week for the past couple months, however we have had some poor germination in our salad mix that has forced us to improvise. One morning before market there was only a small patch of lettuce that could be harvested. The bed next to the lettuce was filled with purslane. Another portion of the field had tender lambs quarters growing between our kale. This opportunity yielded an amazingly colorful and flavorful salad mix. We added baby tender kale, beet greens, and some frisee that was otherwise unsellable because it had tip burn. We cautioned our customers at the farmers market that it was not your typical salad. People loved it! This experience really got me excited to continue experimenting with new mixes. Turning a problem into an opportunity is very fulfilling. Now we just have to keep our chefs at Agricola preserving tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, squash, and pickles to bring the summer bounty onto the fall plate.
We are now officially Certified Organic. Using the practices of organic agriculture for the past three years has made the transition smooth. I have become a better farmer because of the process. Record keeping, paying close attention to crop rotation, and contemplating and improving our farm strategy have all benefited the farm’s overall health. We are also concentrating on producing nutrient dense foods that are packed with flavor. This year we amended our tomato field with sea salt to yield a more flavorful tomato. Once they ripen we will let you know if it was successful! The weather has been nice to work in, however we have missed a couple opportunities to plant because of rain. When the fields are wet we do not work them because that causes compaction. Our CSA is entering it’s sixth week of pickup and our market at the West Windsor Community Farmers Market has been great. Weeds are popping up all over our fields, but we learn to live with them. After we make sure our crops are established, which requires weeding with tractors, scuffle hoes, and hand pulling, we let the weeds go. I have noticed the kale stays a little more tender when shaded by weeds. We try to maintain a balance on the farm for the land we care for, the people that work it, and what we reap. These practices and the proper balance produces great tasting vegetables!
Spring felt about three weeks late this year. It is always challenging playing the hurry up and wait game. Once we were able to get into the fields we have been planting ever since. In the ground we have potatoes, lettuce, radishes, turnips, artichokes, peppers, beans, corn, zucchini, tomatoes, kale, swiss chard, cucumbers, ginger, turmeric, collards, herbs, and carrots. With all of these vegetables in the ground we were hoping on an occasional rain, ideally 1″ per week. The rain never came and we have been irrigating around the clock. When one field is shut off, another is turned on and we repeat the cycle endlessly. I think about California and the devastating drought out West that will surely affect our nations vegetable supply and conclude that no one has a handle on the weather these days. It reaffirms that making a connection with your local farmer is important because they may be the ones that feed their local community when other parts of our country dry up or flood. As I write this it is raining outside…the rain dance worked…and now it’s time to stake the tomatoes, hill the potatoes, and weed, weed, weed. It is all so worth it, eating fresh greens everyday and seeing everything bursting with life.
The crew has been on a roll with planting over an acre and a half of greens and potatoes. We even are trying a couple beds of artichokes this year. Our new employees are settling into their focus on the farm with Parker taking on the daily greenhouse duties such as watering, keeping an eye on any pest outbreaks, and setting traps to catch mice from eating our squash seed. There must be something the way the seed smells because every year we find mice damage to our newly planted seeds. Melissa is focusing on irrigation, livestock, and soil conductivity readings and brix tests to monitor how healthy our plants are out in the field. Andrea’s focus is on livestock and has recently become our go to worker for spreading compost. That entails using our large tractor to scoop from the pile and carefully dump it into our spreader. The spreader drops the compost directly on one of our field beds. Andrea has already composted about 80 beds! The whole crew comes together with everything from planting out in the field, seeding in the greenhouse, washing eggs, moving our mobile coops, to harvesting. There are many facets to our operation and each one of the crew is an important part that keeps everything moving forward. One of the most fulfilling parts of farming is when everyone is working together, helping one another learn, and being there to share in the joys of simple pleasures like harvesting radishes for the first time in Spring.
Challenges have been presented in March and a steady work ethic has proved that anything can be overcome. To clear my mind I breathe, in and out, in a slow rhythm. Then I decide what is the most important task that needs to be done and try to execute. So far the asparagus has popped up, our garlic is looking nice, and we have done a lot of planting. Our first succession is in the field with collards, kale (4 varieties), and swiss chard in the ground. We direct seeded radishes, salad mix, turnips, and carrots. I notice the wild garlic in our forest is almost ready to harvest and we have been producing pea tops in our heated greenhouse. The chickens are in the mobile coops and are scratching and eating the new growth of grass that is finally making a appearance. Our damaged greenhouse has been fixed and our employees are being trained on every aspect of the farm from shoveling scoops of soil to hold down row cover to how to properly fuel all of the machinery on the farm. Lastly I make time to enjoy my family and some time “off”, which will only be a portion of the day on the weekends. Farming takes a lot of sacrifice of time yet I still feel like I have dropped out of the rat race and live a very full life. I love my job, my family, and look forward to everyday. Recently we got 8 lambs. I have never spent anytime around lambs but now I must become an expert. All it takes is self education, surrounding yourself with the right people, intention, and care. My son Van loves to visit the lambs and says “Hi baba! Hi baba!” which fills my heart with joy because he will know plants and animals as he grows. Nurturing the lambs and vegetables we are growing overlaps with nurturing a child. The farm is growing, I am growing, and our family is growing. It does not get much better then this.
Every Spring is filled with challenges. I plan all winter long, trying to improve what was accomplished the previous year, but always run into problems right out of the gate. I post a lot of pictures on Facebook of wonderful looking vegetables and beautiful farm shots to get my community excited about farming. There is also the other side of farming that can be very humbling. I have been working 14 days straight to get all the projects planned completed. My tasks have been varied such as going to Home Depot to pick up supplies 4 times, going to Finkles Hardware to pick up supplies 4 times, going to the lumber yard to pick up supplies twice, picking up a wood stove, figuring out how to install a wood stove, spreading manure in a wet field and getting my tractor stuck, building a 2nd mobile chicken coop, and fixing the plastic on our greenhouse because of a mishap with our new hardening off extension and high winds. I need to do all of this and still focus on farming and seeding in the greenhouse! I have never had to split my brain in so many directions. In like a lion and out like a lamb they say…and that reminds me we are getting 8 lamb in two weeks so I will need to complete our livestock plan, set up a water supply, order minerals, find a trailer, and train our crew on how to take care of them. Spring is challenging.
This winter I built a mobile coop for our laying hens. It was great to have a project like this to keep busy and brush up on some old skills. I studied furniture and product design in college and went on to open a design company I ran as a side job while working in wood and metal shops. Farming allows me to use these skills through laying out irrigation, crop planning, building high tunnels, and mobile coops. I found a used running gear for a hay wagon as the base of the coop. A friend of mine helped me mill out the foundation planks from an ash tree on his saw mill. The rest of the design was taken from simple construction techniques. The whole design is informed by taking care of chickens for the past three years. Most importantly there is a solar powered door that opens and closes based on daylight, which should provide a lot of freedom for the farmer!