Monday, November 26, 2007

End of Season Finale (Finally!)

On October 29 we finally had a frost after most of the month had unseasonably warm summer like temperatures. I couldn’t protest much as this helped to facilitate the maturation of my fall garden which was already as much as a month behind schedule for several of the crops I normally plant for fall.

Not only was it the first frost (normal first frosts occur early October in this area), but it was a killing frost, meaning that according to local weathermen, the growing season had officially ended. I had just begun harvesting the first heads of a larger than usual cauliflower and broccoli crop (approximately 1000 plants covering more than ¼ acre). Broccoli is more hardy (can tolerate temperatures down to 20 degrees before damage occurs), but I was a little concerned that the cauliflower might be damaged some by the cold. Fortunately it came through in relatively good shape despite the fact that, following that first frost, we had about four more nights of what I would consider as killing frosts.

Ever since I first successfully grew the varieties “Cheddar” (bright orange) and “Graffiti” (brilliant purple) cauliflower several years ago I have vowed that I was going to grow in addition to these two, “Fremont” (a superb white variety) and the ever so spectacular lime green with a conical and spiraled head, “Romanesco” and have them all four, along with some broccoli, on my farmers’ market table at the same time.

The problem is that information on the seed packets show as much as a three week difference in the “days to maturity” between “Cheddar” and “Graffiti” and despite the statement that “Romanesco” is supposed to mature in about eighty five days, my own past experience with this variety has been that maturation occurred spread out all over a range of 80 to 150 days.

So the trick is to guess how far apart to seed these varieties in the early summer in order to have a decent shot at having them all ready to pile on my market table at the same time to build my spectacular display. Throw in a few more variables like some “no see um" pests that get on some of the plants before I ever get them out of the greenhouse, midsummer drought and heat as I am transplanting them to the field in mid July, two weeks of nonstop rain and an onslaught of weeds in early August, and a voracious attack of harlequin bugs and cabbage worms throughout August and September. Then one begins to see how challenging it is to even get a crop, not to mention getting it to mature when you want it to!

Well the white cauliflower was heading up nicely by mid October and in fact presented me with some 5 – 6 lb heads that brought nearly $10 each at the market, a record! The orange variety was next to come in (right along with the broccoli) a little more than a week later and also did quite well. I was able to put white in the CSA boxes on Oct 16 and orange in on Oct 23, the last CSA day. The purple variety was still looking quite puny and pathetic at this time and had not even begun to head up, leading me to think that it would probably be a complete failure. The Romanesco was just beginning to slowly develop small heads and I knew that if I was patient it would get there eventually.

Well guess what! On November 10 I finally found enough purple cauliflower to put together with a still fairly abundant amount of orange and even a few remaining heads of the white, together with some nice broccoli and the now emerging green Romanesco, to build my long dreamed of market display. I must admit that I felt really proud to have such a nice display on my final day of the 2007 farmers’ market season. When I go back and add up the tallies of farmers market and restaurant cauliflower and broccoli sales since Oct 13, and estimate in the values of these crops I put into the CSA boxes the final two weeks of the CSA season, I come up with a total value well in excess of $2000. Friday I went out right before dark in my insulated coveralls and harvested another bushel or so of a mixture of purple and green cauliflower which I still hope to sell at the upscale restaurant in town, not bad for a second crop on that little more than ¼ acre plot.

I’ve been spending much of the past few weeks laying ceramic tile in the basement of the new house and building fence connecting the packing shed and barn to the house and yard. The over winter garlic, onion, kale, and spinach crops are up near the house and the clover cover crop in the remainder of the garden field, though planted late, is up. I would like to get some hunting in before the end of this week. If I get the chance I may shoot a couple of those pesky deer that tried to fatten themselves on my edamame soybeans this past summer. The end of the growing season finale has arrived! Finally!

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Venerable Patriarch of the Harrisonburg Farmers' Market

It is a typical summer morning at the Harrisonburg Farmers’ Market where I go on Saturday to sell some of my farm produce. I have had a busy morning and now somewhere between 10:30 and 11.00 o’clock business has begun to slow down somewhat and I pull out from the back of the van my folding wooden chair and sit down a spell to rest my tired legs and lower back. An elderly man with a wavy grayish blond beard and hair that flows out from under his worn red farmer’s cap and reaches down over his shoulders and partially covers his faded flannel shirt and black suspenders that loosely hang his khaki trousers on his slender frame, slowly ambles over to the front of my canopy and greets me with a cheery “Hello”. “I see you still have plenty of everything.” is his quite predictable comment. To which I usually reply with a grin, “Yeah, plenty of everything but money.” “Oh I have never had much money either but the good Lord has always taken good care of me ever since He gave me my land and told me that He wanted me to grow vegetables.” he tells me once again. He usually soon gets around to telling me that it’s getting about time for him to slow down a little but that he has no intention of retiring. I always remark that “I have already been retired for fifteen years but that I keep on working in order to keep from getting bored and to earn enough money to live on.” Then follows his oft repeated story of how he came about buying his 20 acre farm in the 1940s, how the late Dan Stickley sold him at no interest the farm equipment he needed to get started, and how Earl Wetsel allowed him to purchase seed and pay him back with S&H green stamps when the harvest came in. “I was so poor I couldn’t have bought a settin hen if she was fat!” He chuckles.

At the age of 87 Clarence D is the oldest vendor regularly present at the market and quite arguably the original vendor at the market long before it came to be known as the Harrisonburg Farmers’ Market. Clarence began selling vegetables from the back end of his battered pickup in 1960 when the Harrisonburg Police Department gave him permission to set up at the upper west corner of the then Harrisonburg municipal parking lot. Sometime in the early 70s a bi-level parking deck was built on the site and Clarence joined as one of the original vendors when the HFM was organized in the summer of 79 and set up on the lower east side of the deck. Today Clarence proudly declares that he has been in business for over 45 years and that he is able to pass for organic certification because “he has never used no chemicals since he began growing vegetables”.

I first vaguely remember seeing as a kid Clarence set up at the municipal lot when I would come to town shopping with my parents in the 60s but I was not all that interested then. I really came to know Clarence when I began selling at the Harrisonburg Farmers’ Market in 1992. At that time he would wear a cone shaped hat he had made from a piece of cardboard bent and glued to an old adjustable hat band. When he wore it he looked kind of like an aged hippie crossed with a Vietnamese coolie farmer. He drove a 1958 vintage Ford Econoline pickup-van with a covered bed homemade of two by fours and weather beaten plywood. That old van finally died on him sometime in 2005. He still uses an ancient cast iron balancing scale that looks like something dragged out of the ruins when the Visagoths sacked Rome. He tells me that a friend of his was going to “haul it to the junk” when he squirreled it from him. It would really be interesting to be around to see what it brings someday when it comes up at an auction with a couple of antique dealers competitively bidding on it.

Yes, Clarence is a simple and humble gentleman who never had a lot of education but who possesses a lot of old fashioned wisdom and a heart of gold. He has never had a lot of money nor a desire to get it. He proudly tells me that he feels that he has been blessed with a good season this year on his one half acre of market garden. He started out the season with a goal of making $500 and when he reached that goal he set another one of making another $500. Then the good Lord allowed him to make that one too. His homemade coolie hat has worn out long ago, but I can still picture him in my mind wearing it and standing behind his old balancing scale with his old Ford pickup loaded with bags and boxes in the background, making quite a picturesque scene. He is almost as photogenic today with his red cap replacing the homemade one. He is a perfect picture of contentment.

He once told me that he once spent a few days in a nursing home following a brief illness. “I wanted to get out of there as quick as I could because I think that a nursing home is nothin but a place where people go to wait to die!”

I am thankful that I have had educational opportunities that Clarence never had and that I was able to take advantage of them. I am thankful that I am still relatively young, can grow vegetables on three or four acres instead of one half acre, and can take advantage of the newest technologies to work my land and run my business. But when it comes to growing old, the example that Clarence is setting is very much the one that I would like to follow.
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