I will think about today while eating carrots in July.
We attempted to flame weed our carrot beds before seeding them this April, with the hopes that would scorch some of the early season weeds that spring back up from wet soil after tillage that time of year. It didn’t work too well. The weeds grew like crazy anyway, attempting to overtake the wimpy carrot tops that somehow support those orange taproots we love to cook with and eat.
So, we weeded them by hand all afternoon in a light spring rain. An effort at reclamation. Hopefully, more carrots remained in the ground than in our muddy hands!
These days move quickly, though they are already quite long. Dusk falls at nine PM and the birds are chirping before I can usually wake up. There is so much to plant, weed harvest and till. Our work does not seem to end now, but it is satisfying to know that it will pay off in ripe summer vegetables.
We work because we love what we do, and we work so that our people will be fed….
Sometimes it feels like we bully cover crop on this farm; building it up only to tear it down — akin to the low self-esteemed mongers that ravage middle schools everywhere.
But our chopping up of green manure is an act of love, as is the way we till it in, building soil with organic matter in an attempt to restore fertility to this farm rather than deplete it through exhaustive, industrial methods that are found elsewhere.
We just got finished tilling in the overwintered cover crops planted last fall, and they are breaking down in the soil as we speak. We plant a good deal of vetch and rye in the fall — which we grow together consistently through the winter, as rye is a unparralled achiever in the tall- growth category, depositing lush amounts of green material to break down in our soil each spring as long as we get to it early enough, tilling boot-high stands before the grain’s seed pods start to form and the plant shifts from being primarily nitrogenous in nature to wielding a composition that is heavier on the carbon end of the scale.
Carbon is good to us in the soil — as are humus, lignin and the simple microbial life that comes from allowing nearly anything at all to decompose in the soil — but let’s be honest, nitrogen is even better, which is why we rush to get our cover crop tilled before the plants run away from us and start to dry down in the field. Most of the vegetable crops that we grow love nitrogen, conventional farmers douse it on their fields by the truckload full of petroleum-based, synthetic fertilizers, and we are not at all above the stuff, either. But at Island Meadow, we add nitrogen gently, using organic compounds and relying heavily on cover crops and compost to build the fertility of our soil.
Vetch is the perfect companion to our rye. While rye takes off early in the fall, creating a good canopy and root material to prevent erosion and mineral leaching through the saturated winters that we know well and somehow come to love in the Pacific Northwest, vetch really shines come spring by climbing the tall rye strands (which look very similar to grass) and reaching for the sky once the spring equinox passes and our days begin to stretch out to sanguine lengths. And vetch hails from the pea family, therefore fixing nitrogen in our soil in a way that no other plant family can. It’s almost magical.
In a nutshell, Rhizobium bacteria live on the roots of plants related to peas, like vetch — the fabacea. These bacteria allow pea-family plants (clover, fava beans, vetch, peas, and others) to pull nitrogen from the air that is unavailable to any other plants. The nitrogen is drawn into purple nodes where the bacteria lives on the roots of our vetch. When we till, the bacteria, roots and nitrogen all break down in the soil leaving plant-available nitrogen in a form that was not there before.
For all these reasons, we plant cover crops again and again and again. We sow them in the fall to cover the soil through the rainy season, but we sow them in spring and summer, too. Some, like the field peas we get locally from Nash’s Organics, in Sequim, we are able to harvest and sell as food. Others, like buckwheat and phacelia that are planted in the warmer months, attract beneficial insects and pollinators that help our cash crops to thrive. But all the cover crops allow us to build our soil, which is a tendency we rely heavily upon — for if the soil we humans depend upon for food is depleted, as much of the world’s soil has been over time, we’ll be hard-pressed to find more in this late-stage of human development.
This is one facet of what makes our farm “sustainable.” At least we hope. Stay tuned…..
All winter long we have been neglecting the blog, and now it is well past the idle season of flipping through seed catalogs and anticipating warmer months when life springs forth, anew. Already we are pulling seeds out of their storage containers, sowing them in greenhouse flats, and rotating an armada of seedling trays from the heated coils where they get started to unheated benches nearby. The propagating greenhouse is packed with beets, allium, flowers and brassica seed sown in February and March, and we haven’t even begun the process of direct sowing seeds into the farm beds outdoors.
But we want to take a moment and look at what seeds we are using, and why, at Island Meadow Farm.
When possible, we purchase organic seeds to be used at Island Meadow. Organic seeds are grown in organic farming systems, and therefore are more well-suited to producing plants that will succeed in the growing culture we employ on this farm. Conventional seeds are produced by plants offered synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. It follows that the plants grown from those seeds will thrive under similar conditions — which we are not going to give them! We would rather use seeds produced by plants that flourished and successfully made viable seed with organic farming methods similar to how we grow our vegetables and flowers around here. They are more likely to do better that way.
In addition, seed crops generally are left in the ground much longer than the vegetables they grow from. To grow biennial crops like carrots, chard and beets, the veggies are grown a full season, left to overwinter, and then make seed only in their second year of life. For a conventional seed crop, this means that pesticides and fertilizers are added to the environment for a full two seasons just to get the seed that growers will then sow. Even annual crops like lettuce must be left in the ground for a long time to produce seed. First the lettuce plants have to grow, but then they are left in the ground long beyond the point where harvest would typically occur, for the seed heads have to develop and the seeds must dry down on the plant before collection. In purchasing and using organic seeds, we are less concerned about exposure to residual chemicals on the seeds themselves than to the environmental impact of using those chemicals during seed production.
That brings us to another decision — to grow open pollinated or hybrid seeds. At Island Meadow Farm, we grow both.
Open pollinated seeds are those older varieties whose genetics have settled down enough to produce a relatively similar plant generation after generation. As long as your open pollinated plants are isolated from other species with whom they might cross (don’t get your cucumbers too close to the summer squash, for instance), their seeds can be collected and used the next year with predictable results. We love using open pollinated varieties because it feels democratic. By growing open pollinated seeds, communities are more likely to be able to maintain their own seed stock independent of the large businesses edging their way into control of the seeds we depend on to survive.
Hybrid seeds, too, have their merits. Hybrid seeds are produced by crossing distinctive varieties in order to get a new, different strain. These strains are often extremely consistent in their size, color, and in the days it takes to grow them to maturity — making them convenient for farmers who want the whole crop to be ready at once. Sometimes, that uniformity is great for us. In addition, they have a certain “hybrid vigor” often observed in both plants and animals, often growing vigorously and well. The downsides to hybrid seeds are that saved seed is unpredictable and usually produces plants that vary widely from their parents. Also, the seed stock maintained for crossing the hybrid species is consistently owned and controlled by large seed corporations — a nefarious approach to food production, in our opinion.
We save some of our own seeds at Island Meadow Farm, although not many. It occupies a good deal of space to keep the crops in the ground long enough to harvest seed. It also takes a unique set of skills. We’ve started with some simple species like dry beans (in the picture above), sweet peas, potatoes and garlic — thought we hope to grow more in the future. Stay tuned!
For more information about seed production, take a look at the Organic Seed Alliance.
Pepper harvests are my favorite. To hold a bin of these weighty and colorful orbs is almost as satisfying as frying them up with fresh eggs and sweet onions, or dipping them in Baba Ganoush.
We seed our peppers in early March on heated tables, transplanting them into a dilapidated old greenhouse, salvaged from the University District by Island Meadow’s original owners, in late May or early June. The plants grow with slow fervor, producing crisp peppers only once long-awaited August rolls stoically around. But this year they kept going and going and we harvested heavy bins of Islander, New Ace, Ancho Gigante, Black Hungarian, King of the North and Chocolate peppers deep into October. My belly is full of them, their flavor is engrained in the cast iron skillet, and we’ve roasted peppers in the freezer and pickled peppers in Mason jars on the shelves. This was my kind of summer, lingering on with late season sun, coloring more peppers than I could count.
Dry beans are another crop that take every drop of sunshine possible from Pacific Northwest skies. Every September is touch and go. Will they dry or will the rain get them first? Our summers are juuuust long enough to mature them, and early rains occasionally force us to harvest them before the pods have a chance to dry down to the crisp brown package so desired.
As with the peppers, however, this was a great season for dry beans, too. Here you can see Caitlin removing plants from the field on a spectacular blue sky day in September.
The dry beans we eat are essentially mature seed pods, the botanical fruit these plants set out to propagate themselves in the world. We intervene, however, collecting the large legumes and enjoying them all winter in soups and on their own; a high protein vegetable that is easier to grow on our small-scale than wheat, rye or other, smaller grains.
To say they are easier, however, is far from saying that they are easy. In addition to the fall rains common in Western Washington, which will often preempt the beans from drying down properly and force drastic measure like hanging hundreds of plants inside in the hopes the seed pods will mature, we are too small in scale to afford the machinery larger farms use to separate the beans from the rest of the plant.
We accomplish this task, called threshing, by taking several plants at a time and whacking them around inside a clean 50 gallon barrel. This pops most of the beans from their shell, and they collect on the bottom. We then take the beans and other plant debris and pour them back and forth, from bin to bin, in the field, using the autumn winds to blow away light weight chaff and separate it from the heavier beans. Finally, we take the beans inside and do this a few more times in front of a fan, leaving only clean dry beans which are ready to cook.
Our beans are a labor of love, and it’s thrilling that customers and friends at our dinner table have reacted with so much enthusiasm to their vibrant colors, smooth texture and subtle flavors.
One of the best new ideas to come off Island Meadow Farm in the past couple years is indeed a well-worn throwback honed by the tools of tradition: sauerkraut. Not a new idea at all, but rather an ancient food. Cabbage preserved with sea salt, and, in our case, a dash of caraway for flavor.
We ferment our shredded cabbage by placing it into a crock in layers, alternating cabbage, salt and caraway, then smashing it to bruise the cabbage leaves and release juices that help create a brine. For four weeks, we check the batch every couple of days, observing the development of pickled flavors and encouraging the fermentation carefully along, making sure the cabbage continues to stay underneath the level of its brine to allow for a delicious finish to the process.
It’s the best when people get excited to see this sauerkraut in the farmstand and at Vashon’s Saturday market, telling us they like it because it just tastes good. Well-made kraut is delicious, and it’s good for you. too. We like to eat it on its own as a garnish or simple salad on the side of the plate, and also, of course, with cured meat or seared pork chops. The kraut also has a snappy texture with a slight and pleasant crunch that speaks to its freshness and differentiates this food from what is sold on supermarket shelves.
Island Meadow kraut is raw, not heat-processed, so the probiotic cultures are alive and intact. Many people think that the lacto-bacteria responsible for this fermentation, are not only critical to human health, but are all but absent from the modern diet. According to Sally Fallon, in her influential book, Nourishing Traditions:
“Modern food choices and preparation techniques constitute a radical change from the way man has nourished himself for thousands of years and, from the perspective of history, represent a fad that not only has severely compromised his health and vitality but may well destroy him………The process of fermenting foods — to preserve them and to make them more digestible — is as old as human history. Fermented foods are valued for their health-giving properties and for their complex tastes.”
Sauerkraut is one of the many fermented and cultured foods eaten by humans throughout the centuries. Along with kefir, yogurt, kimchi, miso and borscht, kraut can be made easily, and stores well. The book Wild Fermentation, by Sandor Katz, is a great resource for learning about how to make these treats on your own.
Well, the blitz of long days and ireepressible work indeed ensued — and so have many, many meals of farm fresh veggies, fruit and eggs. Here are some photos to give illustration to the changing moods of Island Meadow Farm. Enjoy…..
We have been extremely lucky to connect with several skilled, dedicated and pleasant volunteers who have made the season a great deal more enjoyable, fun and productive. Linda Moore started out with us in April and is still going strong. Here, she helped transplant tomato seedlings in June.
Farming, like quilting, is a process of layering textures, patterns and stitches one upon the other in an effort to create something functional, aesthetic and long-lasting. Unlike quilting, however, farming is done on the move. We are walking fast at Island Meadow Farm these days between seeding, watering, transplanting, weeding, harvesting and maintenance chores.
It is that dynamic time of year when our work is multi-dimensional and far-reaching. Spring treats like radishes and hakurei turnips are ready for harvesting at the same time that summer crops wait not-so-patiently on the hardening-off table before being planted in the ground and weeds grow racehorse fast in the field given lush rains still blowing in regularly from the Pacific.
In late May, it seems like everything is happening at once on the farm. Because it is! This week we removed several beds of overwintered crops that finally gave up the ghost. The bolting kale and chard with an understory of crimson clover were gorgeous to my eye and attracted the necessary pollinators which visited their pollen covered flowers regularly, but, regardless, it was time to get the summer cover crops in. Pulling out the remnants of last season’s work felt to me like overcoming winter’s last stand.
We’ve had hearty locals shopping the stand all winter and spring, but now, the passers-by of summer are appearing in greater number down the farmstand drive, just in time for the peas, beets and greens that will be joining ranks with salad, leek scapes, pea tendrils and other early season veggies stocked as often as we can situate them on our refrigerator’s shelves.
We are transplanting and seeding as fast as we can, hoeing on the warm days to keep up with weed pressure, harvesting often and sleeping exceptionally well at night. Sometimes things get a little silly during the eleventh hour.
With long days upon us and plenty of sunshine to go around, it’s gorgeous on the farm. Come down and check it out for yourself!
It’s time to seed again………….. I hope.
The calendar is telling me so, as is experience and intuition. But this most-recent onset of sleet, rain and chill has me worrying that our first round of seeding in the field might be undone by harsh, grizzled days.
In mid-February, we enjoyed the crystalline moment of sunshine and distinctively warm temperatures that is a common turning point for winters in the Pacific Northwest. Along with the clarity came a moment in the greenhouse seeding Allium (our onions, shallots and leeks) as well as beets that were placed into a homemade soil-block mix designed for easy transplanting once the beet bed dries out for tillage and bed prep.
By early March, several beds on a south-facing slope were dry enough to work. So work them we did. Out came our new tiller, and into the green-chopped beds and freshly tilled cover crop went sweet pea, shelling pea, snap pea, spinach and radish seed.
Then back came the rain — a cold rain this time. So it goes, as we wait for the end of brief, vermilion dry spells to stick digging forks in the soil to check for moisture levels that are adequate to allow for work, for upturning our delicate humus that compacts and loses body when compressed during too-wet times. Now we wait, hoping that the seeds we sowed are not rotting in their furrows, the victims of cold temperatures and inhibited germination.
While spring rains plunk tirelessly down on the sheet-metal roof of our house, we recede to our greenhouse. First, some carrots and salad went into the greenhouse floor at Timken Farm. Next, it’s time for Brassica and Solanaceae above the heated warmth of electric coils designed to trick them into sprouting. We’ve planted cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower seeds in cells of germination mix. As soon as those are up, we’ll take them off the heat and plant a round of tomatoes, peppers and eggplant.
There is certain magic contained in the act of sprinkling seeds into nursery trays, knowing the plants will not survive outside quite yet, but trusting the warmer days will come at a time that coincides at least roughly with our projected dates — for leaving these starts for too long in their trays and four-inch pots during a long, wet spring leads to stifling, root-bound conditions that are harder on the plants than getting them out into the field when they just start to fill-out.
We trust that it is indeed time to seed, and we fill up our greenhouse tables with delicate starts. We dive into our field beds between rainstorms planting early vegetable crops and sowing cover crop where overwintered plants, now harvested, once lived.
In between those pristine moments we continue to work inside, resting moments longer, awaiting the long days ahead and looking forward to sweet days of lingering sunsets and perfectly ripe tomatoes.
The rain might be falling, but so are our seeds. There is trust in this act. Surely the sun must come back soon.