This week was the peak of midsummer abundance, so naturally, we had a lot of harvesting to do, but we are also beginning to do some preparation for the fall and winter. Monday and Tuesday were busy as ever with the CSA harvest, and the insects seemed busy too. There have been shiny beetles, butterflies, cabbage moths, Mexican bean beetles, dragonflies, cicadas, grasshoppers, mosquitoes, horseflies, deerflies, detritivores, spiders, caterpillars, wasps, bees, and many other little exoskeletal creatures crawling, humming, flitting, and buzzing around the fields. Monday we spent nearly all day harvesting green beans, cukes, zucchini, and summer squash, and I was dodging giant black and yellow spiders the whole time. We ended up with 128 lbs of green beans. The share was huge this week; it consisted of over a pound of green beans, a pound of either carrots or broccoli, 3 cucumbers, 2 summer squash, a cabbage, tomatoes, 2 bell peppers, ¼ lb of mesclun mix, a mini head lettuce, 2 onions, a head of garlic, parsley, and basil. This time of year, the share is worth much more than the weekly average of $25, but June and October tend to be less than $25 worth of produce.
On Thursday, we harvested mesclun mix, kale, chard, the last of the red beets, salad turnips, rainbow carrots, squash, cukes, zukes, onions, garlic, tomatoes, mini head lettuce, and basil. I went up to harvest sunflowers and I got them into the van just seconds before it started pouring rain. The weather this week has been bringing in sudden afternoon thunderstorms that form in the distance and are upon us within 20 minutes. On one hand, it has been exciting for me to learn about meteorology, having grown up in a place with next to no weather changes, but on the other hand, it is extremely unpredictable. Ken has been trying to find a time to cut hay for weeks and the weather is never sure enough.
One major project that began this week is pulling out all of the garlic. So far we have pulled about half the garlic out, using some as fresh garlic for CSA and market but hanging the bulk of it on the 3rd floor of the barn. We pull it out and lay it down in piles of 10, separating the small and large bulbs. Then we tie each bunch of 10 together with a slip knot in a piece of twine, each twine holding a bunch at either end. Then we load them all onto the hay wagon, bring it down to the barn, carry them up the stairs, and hang them over the rafters to cure.
These last couple weeks, the sheep have been in a pretty swampy bit of pasture that lacks the broad-leaf, nutrient-dense plants that sheep like to nibble. Case in point: on Wednesday we saw a salamander and a toad in the sheep pasture, so it’s definitely too wet to support things like goldenrod and clover. This means that they have been moved just about every day recently. On Friday, we got them out of the swamp and onto some nicer ground. On Saturday, they were moved into a beautiful, rich pasture with a big shady ash tree with the help of Adrienne’s mom’s border collie Dakota, which was pretty amusing to watch. Soon, they will be up on a sunny hillside that has lots of goldenrod. In a few weeks, the ewes will start going into heat and we will separate the rams and start fattening them up on the grass near the house. Then we will reintroduce the breeding ram in time to hope for a March-May lambing season. (This past year lambing started in February, which was a little too cold).
The other gaps in the week were filled with some long overdue weeding and thinning, mostly in the leeks and rutabagas.
Also, I turned 20 on Friday and we had a big dinner with the whole crew and ate carrot cake!
As the summer heat fades and fall starts closing in on us, I have been thinking a lot about preservation. The growing season here is about 120 days, or only a third of the calendar year. The rest of the year, people who wish to eat locally must either buy storage vegetables or store their own. Before the advent of industrialized, international food distribution, storing food was part of every family’s lifestyle here. Most people must have devoted many evenings and weekends to canning, pickling, jamming, drying, and freezing. There was really no other way to live in this climate. In his excellent book Changes in the Land, William Cronon describes how Native people’s living patterns changed rapidly after the summer abundance stopped. “Toward the middle of September, Indian populations moved inland to smaller creeks where eels could be caught as they returned from their spawning in the sea. From October through March, villages broke into small family bands that subsisted on beaver, caribou, moose, deer, and bear. Men were responsible for killing these animals while women maintained the campsite and did all hauling and processing of the slaughtered meat.” (pg. 40) In the summer months, these same people (living north of the Kennebec River in modern-day Maine and the Maritime Provinces) were mostly gathering berries, nuts, eggs, and easily caught fish and birds. Human patterns of settlement have always been dependent on food supply. The ability to store and preserve food is arguably the foundation of human civilization as we know it. (Hint: I’m talking about beer). Nowadays, most people in Maine don’t change their eating habits at all throughout the year. A banana from Chile, rice from California, and flash-freezed tuna from Japan can be purchased from Hanneford’s any time of year for the same price.
For those who attempt to grow and buy some of their food from their local climate region, Maine is a tough place to live. There are a few farms (including ours) that run a winter CSA, but those are usually November through February, and summer CSAs don’t start up again until mid June. There is a winter farmers market, but it’s harder to want to go to the farmer’s market without the sunshine, live music, and ice cream sandwiches. The other issue is that options are greatly decreased. The number of vegetables that store well in a cellar is a small fraction of those you will find at a market in August, which can be disheartening to the palate. On the other hand, there are so many different and exciting ways to preserve food! Fruit can be jammed, jellied, dried, frozen, canned for pies, or turned into wine and vinegar. Most vegetables can be canned in vinegar or pickled in brine, and you can get quite creative with spices. Cabbage makes amazing sauerkraut and kimchi. Tomatoes and basil turn into pasta sauce and pesto, peppers into hot sauce and salsa, and garlic goes with just about everything. Preservation is quite a lost art, and there is much cultural and family know-how that has been nearly lost forever, but it is coming back into vogue among young radicals like myself. In Oakland, CA, there is an Institute for Urban Homesteading that teaches classes on preservation, and many other organizations like it have similar workshops around the country. In Amherst, MA, Michael Docter runs a farm that grows only storage crops, and they sell some of them in packages that encourage buyers to store their own foods. The have a “pickle package:” cucumbers, garlic, onion, hot pepper, etc with a recipe, and the same setup for tomato sauce, pesto, salsa, and a few other recipes. (from Sharing the Harvest by Elizabeth Henderson). Across the country, there are murmurs of a change in how people access food in the off-season, but it will take a sea change for Maine to stop relying on California through the winter.