Wednesday, August 29, 2007

bear envy

Let's see. A whole bunch of little things to write about.

Maybe next week I'll write about the peahen that walks back and forth across the farm with her daughter watching and following each and every one of her steps.

And then we could speculate what happened to the other peahen. The one that went out about the time they usually do in the spring to lay their eggs and instead of returning with a daughter or son, was never seen again.

And then I could spend an entire newsletter describing Wenonah's bear envy.

Wenonah, I'm sorry you have never seen one of the bear's that roam up and down our valley. I know its not right that while you have lived back here longer than anyone else that you haven't seen even one of our local bears.

(yes, I know you once lived at the foot of Old Rag and bear sightings were an everyday occurrence, but that's not the same thing as seeing a bear here relatively close to the city).

If the world was fair you would have seen a bear back when you were a little girl carrying the water bucket down to the spring behind the house to collect water for your family.

The truth is, Wenonah has lived in this valley longer than anyone, she goes on longer walks, gets up early before work and walks a couple miles down the valley. She lived here before there was electricity or before any of the other houses were built yet only...

only she has never seen a local black bear.

Not once.

Last week one of our neighbors, a woman who has lived here just a few years, looked out her door just before we came over for dinner and saw a smallish (but fat) black bear up around their orchard eating apples.

But Wenonah has always been somewhere else.

She was reading when I went out to chase the bear out of the delivery van earlier this summer.

And she was at work when I saw the mother and her large son eating ants on the power line cut.

Or last year when the bear was dismantling the beehive in our front yard she was asleep.

Or she was at work when I saw the bear harvesting our corn.

I'm sorry Wenonah. Someday, when you least expect it, when you are probably thinking about some work problem, there will be a bear, probably stepping out of the woods right next to you as you pass by on your morning walk.


But now for the real news of the week.

It rained on the farm last night. Maybe not as much as in the city (I understand that DC received 2, maybe 3 times more rain than we did). But enough rain to allow me to stop irrigating for a few days.

Right now my gauge says we received 1.63 inches of rain for the month of August.

It looks like for the entire month of August it only really rained on four days.
.63 of an inch today.
.47 yesterday.
.10 last Thursday
.40 on August 9th
and .03 of an inch spread out over the rest of the month.

Hopefully, though, the drought will now be broken with hurricane season approaching, even if no rain is predicted for the remainder of the week.

Tomato Misinformation.

Last week the Post's food section ran an article by a freelance writer which among other things gave advice on selecting tomatoes.

DO NOT follow this person advice.

He's an idiot (at least when it comes to picking out tomatoes he gives bad advise).

His rule of thumb is to "Handle tomatoes before purchase"

He wants you to pick tomatoes up and, well he doesn't say what you are going to do with it then, but the implication is to 'squeeze'.

I shuttered when I read his words. I had visions of all the ruined tomatoes (and fruit, the same is true of tender fruits) following in his wake.

The author goes on to mention that he did once get in trouble when he applied his technique to the tomatoes at an Italian farmers market.

"Market vendors may be wary of customers pawing their wares (I learned that lesson the hard way in Italy)."

And rightly so!

He didn't say what happened but I can imagine.

If I was that Italian farmer and I saw him mistreating my tomatoes I'd want to have a switch behind the counter just for American tourist (in this case, apparently, a cooking student) and others just like him.

I can see it. The author/cooking student is meandering through the vegetable stalls. He comes across a beautiful tomato and reaches out for it.

Picks it up and...


Before he can squeeze it down comes the switch on his fingers.

'Destroy my tomatoes will you.' I start yelling (obviously in Italian.) Smack! 'That'll teach you.'

But I'm not an Italian farmer and I'm not going to hit offenders with a switch (though sometimes when I see peaches or tomatoes being mistreated I get a very strong urge.

So, let's just count this as another example of not believing everything you read in print.

I've said this before but I'll say it again.

Do not pick up and squeeze fruit and vegetables you aren't putting into your bag.

Instead, think. What happens to that fruit or vegetable when it's squeezed? What is happening to the insides of that tomato when it is squeezed?

The answer is easy. It is being damaged.

And, to that the author/cooking student might answer, 'So what? I didn't want it. I didn't like it. it wasn't good enough.'

Which might be a great answer if this was a grocery store and the tomatoes are bred and grown and harvested and displayed to take a lot of abuse. And anyway, a heavy percentage of waste is built into the system and price structure.

But this isn't a grocery store, its a CSA.

And a CSA is a fundamentally different creature.

Those vegetables in the boxes at the pick up day aren't 'their' or 'his' vegetables, they are 'our' vegetables.

All of those vegetables that are our unloaded from the van on your pick up, and all of the other pick up days are, in a very real sense, your vegetables.

With a CSA (even look at the name, a Community Supported Agriculture farm) we're trying to set up a different relationship between people and their food. To look at it as something different than a box of widgets to be sold and traded.

The members of the farm aren't customers but shareholders. Instead of buying a tomato or bulb of garlic you are getting your share of the harvest.

Your share of your harvest.

Those tomatoes are really 'our' tomatoes. When a tomato is damaged by someone squeezing it really it is one less tomato for all of us.

Those numbers on the white board reflect the size of our harvest and what your share of that harvest is.

I mean, look at it this way, if everything had gone to plan this season, if the bears hadn't knocked down the fence, if the deer hadn't gotten in the fence, if there hadn't been a drought (there are a lot of 'ifs' in farming) those numbers on the board, in fact the variety on the board would be quit different.

A great example of this is this year's basil.

I'm sure everyone will vouch that we are having a real bumper crop. We've been having 'all you can eat' basil for ever and it looks like we will continue for the rest of the season.

But think about it this way. What I could be doing, instead of giving out all you can eat basil every week, I could instead hand out just enough basil each week. A couple sprigs, something Giant or Whole Foods sells for $8, $9, $10. Enough to make people reasonably happy.

But consider, I could, instead of dividing the rest of that bumper drop with the shareholders I could be driving the rest of it up to Jessup and selling it at the commercial market.

At the current prices of basil I'd be making a fair amount of extra money.

But that's not how a CSA works.

Consider it this way -- at the same time we're having the bumper basil (and garlic) crops, we're having a fairly small tomato crop. I had planned for each shareholder to be getting over half a dozen tomatoes each week. That didn't happen. Instead, we have, what we have and I've been trying to divide that fairly among the shareholders.

That's why I get upset when I see someone pick one a tomato, look at it, squeeze it, damage it, and then throw it down.

I know what that means for someone else. It means there is one less tomato to go around.

(if you missed it, the newsletter that tells you how to pick your tomatoes, here it is, on our farm blog).


Leigh Hauter

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Monday, August 13, 2007

spilt honey, again

It wasn’t as bad as it could have been...

Well, that might not be strictly true.

Let’s just say instead: It has been worse.

I mean, it has been larger and definitely stickier.

This time it was only 50 pounds all over the Herndon share site. The other time it was six hundred pounds and it covered our sun room floor.

Then it was honey oozing under the door and across the stone floor. This time it was honey dripping out of the van door onto the church asphalt.

But, here's 'The Question'

How long does it take a honey bee scout to find spilt honey and get back to the hive and tell everyone about the bonanza just waiting to be picked up?

How long does it take a scout bee after finding honey to fly back to her hive and return with a thousand of her sisters to come and carry it home?

More about that after the farm news.

Tomatoes? Since the tomato season has finally, slowly, started, here are the tomato guidelines. If you are a first time shareholder with us, you should look at this.


Rain Watch! Only marginal, at best, rain this last week. 1/100th of an inch on Monday and another 1/100th Sunday. The last meaningful rain to hit the farm, an inch, was two weeks ago.

As most of you know (some people, however do seem to be oblivious to this fact), vegetables do not grow without water. I was out on the Eastern Shore last week and the corn there looks like someone attacked it with a flame thrower.

Stunted and burnt looking.

This drought is about the worst I have seen in my lifetime.

(I do, however, remember a stretch of 56 straight days --don’t ask how I remember that number --of being able to play outside without interruption from rain. Since I associate that memory with football it must have been in the fall of the early part of the 1960’s).

Heat alert. And to add insult to injury we are having temperatures in the upper 90’s this week (and much of last week). It looks like its about to go over 100 today.

You probably know, tomatoes stop growing at temperatures above 90. In fact most vegetables stop growing when it gets that hot.

Let’s hope now that the tomatoes are finally growing they don't shrivel up in the heat and drought.

Susannah, the woman who provides most of the eggs in the eggshares, grows her own corn to feed her families hogs and chickens.

Not this year.

This year her corn is shriveled and stunted. She had to borrow money this week to buy some two year old grain her neighbor had stored away when times were better.

Even with the heat, though, we have started planting greens for the fall. Seeds for greens have very poor germination in the heat but we don’t have much choice.

If we don’t plant now we won’t have greens this fall. Oak leaf lettuce, red sails lettuce, black seeded Simpson, arugula, giant red mustard, southern curly, plus half a dozen I can’t recall off the top of my head. We also planted a lot of radishes and plan to start today pac choi in flats. Let’s see if we can get them growing despite the heat.

Honey. For the past two weeks we have been giving out honey. If you still haven’t remembered to bring a jar, we will give out honey one more week. Then, if there is still honey left we will start distributing the remainder.

Which reminds me that the Herndon people didn’t get their honey last week.

Instead of shareholders getting the honey, bees from a Herndon backyard beekeeper's hive collected our honey right off the church parking lot asphalt.

Here’s what happened (no excuses intended).

The road around the back of Dulles airport was backed up last week. While route 606 once was a country road, the fields have quickly turned into the home of offices, warehouses, strip malls and what one of my friends calls 'short sharp stick houses' (houses you can cut through the walls if you have a short stick) that are being advertised as costing in ‘the upper $700 thousand’ range.

My favorite goat pasture. A field for decades supporting a herd of Nubian goats is now a neighborhood of sss houses (do you think the people that moved in know they are living on top of the past home of a lot of stubborn, loud, stinking, obnoxious goats?)

Anyway, I wasn’t in a good mood when I finally got to the pick up site and sharply pulled into the parking space behind the church.

And when I did, the bucket of honey tipped over.

And the top to the bucket popped off.

And when I ran around the side of the van the honey was already dripping under the side door.

Those buckets, those five gallon bucket I store the honey in holds 60 pounds of honey.

And when I opened the door 50 pounds of it had already oozed out.

And was quickly dripping under the door, to the asphalt.

50 pounds of honey making an ever widening circle.

I stood in dismay staring at the mess. That was until the the first honey bee showed up in less than two minutes.

A scout bee.

You probably know that a honeybee hive is a pretty diversified operation.

It's pretty complex.

Real complex for a bunch of insects.

I mean, we can’t smell their language (bee language is mostly pheromone based) but we do know from observation that there are hundreds of different jobs tasked out to different bees.

There are police bees and guard bees, nurse bees and water carrying bees (actually at any time a bee can quit her job and take up another profession), there are nectar gathers, and pollen collectors. Undertakers and air-conditioning (well, maybe we should call it air cooling) technicians. Comb builders, bees that insulate, bees the take care of the babies. Bees that take feed the next to worthless male bees and, my favorite, the job I would want if I was a bee, bees that scout out the world.

Scout bees spend their time flying around the greater world, sort of checking out what’s what.

There are different things that scout bees look for (we don’t know if this is a specialized profession too) and while some scouts look for water and others look for new places to build hives, there is your scout that flies around looking for new sources of food.

Well, that’s what kind of bee found out spilt honey. She flew around for a few moments until, finally, landing. Then, quickly, taking in a sample of the spilt honey before lifting off again. But instead of flying back to her hive, she circled the van several times so she would be sure to give directions to its location and then... zoom.

Off she went, straight as a beeline, back to her hive where, humans once believed she did a dance (there are new studies that say the well-known bee dance actually isn’t how a bee imparts her information, that there is probably a much more complex pheromone based language going on, a language that we, as a species, are biologically ill-equipped to understand).

Anyway, somehow the one scout that found our spilt honey went back home and spread the word and by the time the pick up was over and I was loading the boxes several thousand busy bees had arrived and were hurriedly picking up our spilt honey.

I wonder what sort of process human society would have to undertake to perform some equivalent task?

Wednesday, August 08, 2007


(this is a newsletter from a couple years ago but it contains the rules for picking up your tomatoes. A slightly different version has been printed in several magazines and cookbooks).

Let's see, what happened on the farm this week?

On Saturday I almost got mugged. Right in the middle of the farm. In broad daylight.

On Sunday we hiked the length of the valley, down along the creek from our farm out to Thoroughfare Gap and then back along the ridge top. The entire hike, we didn't see one other person, but we did see a lot of blue berries. We stopped in one place for over an hour picking and eating.

Wild blueberries turn your teeth blue.

Monday I saw the first squash growing out in the field. A middle eastern squash.

Tuesday we harvested the last of the spring lettuce. Red oak leaf. No more lettuce until September. That evening it rained a quarter inch.

Wednesday it sprinkled all day. An eighth of an inch. I noticed the little white furry caterpillar type insect. When you touch them they sting like nettles. There were a couple in the fields last year. This year, many more. What are they? A type of asp? I had never seen one on the farm until the past couple of years.

And even though this week I really wanted to tell you about my assailant and to remind everyone about a proposed holiday, National Berry Picking Day, Let's, instead, discuss something really, really important instead.


Right now the crop is just starting to trickle in, but hopefully, if everything goes as expected, in the next couple of weeks we will have a flood of tomatoes. Early Girls, Big Boys. Big Beef, Sun Golds, Valley Girls, Green Zebras, Lemon Boys, Brandywines, Romas, and another dozen varieties I can't recall off of the top of my head.

If everything goes as planned, there will be hundreds and hundreds of ripe tomatoes each day.

This means I will not be individually handing out tomatoes. We will put them in those yellow boxes and let you pick your own.

But lets set some rules first, OK?

Our tomatoes are fundamentally different than those things that you see in the grocery store that are sold under the name 'tomatoes'.

Corporate tomatoes, the ones that you buy in the grocery stores, are a completely different creature than what we grow.

First, corporate tomatoes aren't grown around here. Almost all of America's summer tomatoes originate in California. This is the truth. Most of America's summer tomatoes are grown in the fabulously polluted San Joaquin Valley and then shipped across country.

And in the winter, America's tomatoes come from Chile or Mexico or greenhouses in Arizona (the East Coast's winter tomatoes, just a few years ago, were mostly grown in Florida, but NAFTA changed that. Florida couldn't compete with Mexico for cheap labor -which when it comes to picking tomatoes by hand, is a large part of the cost. Most of the large Florida tomato growers have gone out of business in the past couple years).

And how is something as delicate as a tomato transported all of those thousands of miles?

Simple. They are picked green and often treated with a gas to make them turn red.

And why, you might ask, would anyone pick their tomatoes green (unless they took a fancy to green fried tomatoes)? The answer -tomatoes picked green are firmer, less juicy, more capable of bouncing around in a box, and in the store, being pick up and squeezed.

It takes an awful lot to make them go squish.

Corporate tomatoes have what home grown tomatoes don't have. They have 'shelf life'.

Fresh, picked that morning ,tomatoes are different. They are full of water. Juice. The fruit walls are tender.If they are given a squeeze, they go squish. As in, tomato juice. And if you put them in a box and shipped them half way around the world what would come out at the other end is tomato juice, not tomatoes.

This lesson took me a number of years to learn.

Every year I would just put out our tomatoes like I do the rest of the vegetables, and let people pick their own.

Each day, as I drove home, 20-25% of the tomatoes I had picked in the morning, would be sitting in the back of the truck, all squished up.

I thought, at the time, this was just the price of doing business. 'Tomatoes', I thought. 'just don't travel well. You need to pick more to account for the short shelf life.'

Then, one year, because we were having a poor crop of tomatoes, instead of just putting the tomatoes out for people to pick themselves, I gave the tomatoes out.

And I learned something.

Only 1 or 2% of the tomatoes got squished in transit.

I found out that what was damaging all of those perfectly good tomatoes was people picking them up, giving them a little squeeze, just like they would do to a corporate tomato in the grocery store.

But, unlike the corporate tomato, ours would go squish.

Local, homegrown tomatoes, are a completely different creature than those corporate vegetables. They are full of juice. They can't handle being squeezed.

Oh well.

So, to make the story short, when you are picking out your tomatoes, just look at them, only touch the tomatoes you are going to put in your bag. And if, by chance, you don't particularly like that tomato after picking it up, put it in your bag anyway, and get another one.

We should have plenty of tomatoes in a couple of weeks.

And that's my tomato lecture for the season.

And since I've taken up some much space talking about tomatoes I'll save National Berry Week until next week. And I guess I can also tell you then about being attacked, in full daylight, by a ferocous, take no prisoners, set on drawing blood, rooster.

Have a bodacious week.

Leigh Hauter