Friday, February 22, 2013

The Sophomore



I made my way out to the farm Monday morning to collect 300 pounds of alfalfa meal from the Riverhead Agway. They had expected me two weeks prior, but given the nature of the storm, Nemo, I declined. Rounding Quail Hill Farm near 10 am, I was greeted by a road block. A massive snow-blowing truck was throwing snow 50 feet to the south. After ten minutes, I was tempted to run the van over the farm road, but I didn't, probably wisely.


After a potholed, rutted journey over a road that could only have been devised to keep traffic out, I made it around to the private road. It's a road to grandiose, stony facade and column, poolhouse and pond, and I parked because farmer has me feeling more entitled than artist ever has. 


Blocking the road, yes, but wouldn't a friendly farmer's wave do, a wave from he who toils on the land, provides the stony facade and column a vision of the pastoral, reassures him and her that agriculture is not peasantry, but all the more pleasantry? So, yes, I parked on the private road, and from here a simple wave to just over there could rouse me to unblock their passage. But then nothing much came of it.


The farm road was covered in snow of variable depth, impassable by minivan or rather the promise of digging out was just as great an impasse, so that I hiked in.


Easy enough on old snow, frozen then melted, rained on and refrozen, now crusty.


Enter the farm from the eastern gate and we first notice the saffron patch, which I thought appeared remarkably sound given recent weather. A surprising amount of growth put on since the studio-bound sprouting, early November planting, and December flowering - a full two months late.


This hardly looks like a farm in winter, but a farm in drought. The decision not to mulch was a difficult one, born of cost and wind. I still cannot determine a mulch that will stay put in the face of so much daily scouring.


If you look closely at the field, orderly, pale greenery emerges. Bare soil warms rapidly under the strong February sun. A month ago most rows had no emergence, but the warmth of just a few days last week and the bare soil have given the eager varieties (notably the soft-stemmed and variable hard-stemmed varieties) the signal to push up. Rocambole, Pocelain, and Purple Stripe varieties appear to have the will to stay put, a botanical mind for the mild bipolarity of winter. This wasn't an issue in the cold zone farming upstate, but as my experience at the beach farm bore out last season, Long Island's coastal warming contributes to the early growth. But it's just that warming that allows us to grow every variety. All I can do is prepare better next season, plant a little deeper, and be mindful of the higher amplitude climate patterns offered by the warming arctic.


I had hoped that all the snow of the last month would provide a protective blanket for the crop, but the heavy winds removed most of the snow just as quickly as it had accumulated. In fact, the reason for the road closure was that much of the snow that had fallen two days prior to my visit had blown off the fields and onto the road.


The most eager growth belongs to the Turban variety. Above, to the right, is the strain 'Thai Purple' and to the left is 'Tuscan.' Several 'Tuscan' had begun to sprout before planting time, recalling now how planting was delayed by lease issues and our tropical friend Sandy.


During Long Island winters like the kind we've been having for years now, temperatures rarely dip below twenty degrees F, especially this close to the ocean. Extreme jet stream events brought extraordinary cold to the region this January, delivering occasional nights with single digit temperatures, fierce winds and damage to the eager strains. While garlic is a tough plant, energy will be lost to regrowth and stress will create opportunity for disease.


Another problem has been heaved cloves. By a long shot, not nearly as much as the other farmers' garlic, but enough to make me pissy. Every clove lost to something like this is a bulb lost to market. Pulling them out is incredibly tough, made all the harder by frozen soil just below the sun-warmed surface. The first dozen or so came up in January, while the soil was still soft as recently tilled, and those were tough to remove, their roots so firmly embedded in the ground. This visit, a month later, revealed another dozen or so. I'm not completely convinced that this is caused by rapid, intense root growth pushing the clove two, three or four inches up above ground. Maybe it's frost heave, given the moisture, the freeze thaw, the patterned cracks in the beds. Next year there will be deeper tilling, deeper planting, bed firming, and possibly some mulch because this problem is unacceptable.


To the left of the signs you see rows of minor hills running perpendicular to the garlic beds. This was the cover crop planted in December, back when warmer days seemed the norm. Nothing has sprouted there, and honestly I have no idea if it should. A cover crop in winter could help with another vexing problem.


The soil conservationist's nightmare. The snow that remains puts in stark relief all the blowing farm soil. If it weren't for this display, an untrained eye would hardly realize that any soil was being lost to the wind. I don't like it, not one bit. I have winter clover to plant around March one for my main walking row, an area roughly 1200 square feet. I have no equipment to roughen the soil compacted by our feet, nothing but a new, five pound, six-inch rake to break the soil. That will be a long day.


From here, my whole acre, the larger parcel intended for next year's crop. Despite crankiness about my sophomoric missteps and a blustery, incessant wind, I thoroughly enjoyed walking the rows. Spring approaches, and early summer's work beyond understanding, winter's rest and the warm, strengthening sun are solace.


As I hiked out, down the curving road toward the wood and van parked on the private road, the sun behind me lit the trees brilliantly. These trees on the south prong of Long Island's fork glow in the sun and are toned evenly under clouds. They are unlike any I've seen. The species, yes -white oak, aspen, beech, but the brilliance of the bark across species appears different here and I wonder if it has to do with the lichen and the ocean.





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