Monday, December 31, 2012

Posting From The Plane

We were going to see temperatures down about -15 tonight with a brisk wind chill on top. So we decided to leave our cats with Rex and visit my mother and sister, west of Orlando, Florida for a few days.

Weather should warm back up to 15 or 20 by the time we return. Then a couple more days in Minnesota before we make the driving journey back to New York City.

Happy New Year everyone!

Posting From The Plane

We were going to see temperatures down about -15 tonight with a brisk wind chill on top. So we decided to leave our cats with Rex and visit my mother and sister, west of Orlando, Florida for a few days.

Weather should warm back up to 15 or 20 by the time we return. Then a couple more days in Minnesota before we make the driving journey back to New York City.

Happy New Year everyone!

Sunday, December 30, 2012


Ant food is sprouting in Rex's any farm. I suppose that's good since these are harvester ants.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Land o Frozen Lakes

Just east of our terrestrial realm is another, aqueous realm -the lakes. In winter, normal winter, these lakes freeze and the people leave their homes for a life on the lake. Sometimes on skates, often on mobiles, and perhaps in little shacks.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012


For Christmas I got a knife -a pruning knife of decent build. My first, it's guided by a flick of the wrist, away from the body. It's sharp enough to cut cleanly through the thick cardboard it came with.

I also received a small Japanese hoe, Nejiri Gama, which roughly translates to torsion sickle or twist sickle. It is nearly short-handled and designed to undercut weeds in tight quarters with a pull stroke. Both tools belong to a greater body of tools I am growing for the farm (and garden).

Good tools cost more, but I have a philosophy -a good tool is the least expensive because you will only buy it once. These are the tools you make sure not to leave out in the yard over winter, tools you are sure not to leave in the car overnight should someone decide tonight is the night they're breaking your window.

It should be of no surprise that I've also acquired a number of books by Wendell Berry -writer, poet, agriculturalist.

Monday, December 24, 2012


Last year there was no snow -the whole time we were here and the temperatures were in the 30s and even 40s. That was very unusual. Usual is 15 for a high and often enough a low around -5.

This year we are back to normal. A brief snow is on its way, on top of the remnants of last week's snow storm, for Christmas Eve. Christmas Day promises a high of 6 degrees F, in wake of the storm.

The light is low, earth tilted away from the sun as it is. It's funny to think of this, as it has always been, and how the plants have evolved along with it, and the cold it brings to us in the north. And even funnier to think I am standing less sideways in our x,y,z world at this northerly latitude, this time of the year, than I am say in New York in summer.

Here's to standing upright.

Friday, December 21, 2012


Coyote have made a comeback in almost every mainland wood and clearing I have been to. It's no different in the Big Woods of Minnesota, where up until the last year or so, I hadn't heard them. This video, black because of night, holds the music of night on the edge of the Big Woods in August.

A Road Whence

Turn right, here, to step onto the farm. Or, take the road projecting outward and away, curving, merging softly with grasses. 

A look back, all appears not as where I stood.

Taking the curve, the road now brief, with graminoid muff. 

And in a few short paces -the wood this road bisects. "Yet knowing how way leads on to way (R. Frost)," I turned back to see to what was needed.

Today we are hitting the road once again, making our way to Minnesota for the holiday. We tire of this driving, and each year plan to do it differently. But cat care, alternate side parking, and air fares at the last minute too, all conspire to have us driving. We plan to take make three 8 hour drives instead of two 12 hour stretches, a luxury given to us this year by extra work and a Tuesday Christmas. I will, at some point on this journey, make my way to Florida to see my mother and sister, and then return to Minnesota for the drive back. 

Check out my posting, thanks to a slowly improving Blogger Mobile app (two updates this year, but pictures still blur and lack placement), at Letters From the Big Woods. May you have a peaceful and joyful Christmas and New Year.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

December Farms

Two Sundays back I threw business to the wind. I drove out to the farm, I spent the money, I saw what's what. The radar told me that, despite the clouds, rain would be limited at most, and the thermometer was nothing less than a balm. I was concerned about weather stations reporting a lack of rain; less than a 1/16th in over a month. I was troubled by my inaction as it came to mulching the rows. I had little purpose, but a desire to get out to the farm.

It had rained, and by my unofficial gauge (a mixing pail) it had rained nearly an inch. I was quite surprised by the puddles in the walking rows, too, as it reveals a soil less porous than expected. The tilled beds were quite well drained, however, and I will work to keep water moving in the wet rows.

My single bale of straw, provided gratis by Larry of J&L Nursery, had since Black Friday to prove its field worthiness. It failed. Light to moderate winds had scattered sixty percent of the straw. On my way out to the farm, I stopped at a roadside nursery, now briskly selling trees and wreaths, but had been scouted for straw bales in early October. I decided not to purchase any, as they appeared quite seedy, some sprouting grass, and the evidence in the field left me feeling vindicated.

Several 'Tuscan' bulbs had sprouted above soil. This isn't a surprise. Some were sprouting at planting time, one month ago, so they've just continued on given the mild temperatures. I worry that we'll have another winter like the last, a winter where cold tolerant plants simply continue to grow, then get shocked by sudden dips to 20 degrees. This farm location favors the warm-tolerant garlic varieties -Turban, Creole, Silverskin, Artichoke, yet I do hope we find a balanced winter, with enough freezing air masses moving over the area to treat the other varieties to some cold. My prediction? It's unlikely.

I had planted the French Grey shallots first, in early November. I checked them several times since, and was quite surprised to see a number of them poking out of the ground, including this one -completely out. Shallots are planted shallowly so that their tips align with the soil surface. Many had risen to half or more an inch above the soil. What was going on? A nosy fox or crow? Geese? I saw little in the way of foot prints. I walked the rows to ensure that each had enough soil to cover them.

Afterward, I took to my neighbor's field where I had witnessed him planting a crop of garlic the weekend before Thanksgiving. Many of his planted garlic were up above the soil line, as if planted carelessly. I wondered what had happened here -giant white cloves lay sideways along each row.

I had hoped, but was one week too late, that I would be able to cut some saffron to take home. Benefiting from the warm and moist days, Crocus sativus has had time to sprout leaves and grow roots despite having sprouted in the studio before setting roots in soil. This forty foot row of three hundred will be uprooted late next summer and replanted in a new location, all part of the circumstance of a small acre and required cover cropping.

After lunch, I had little left to do, but attach a few of my remaining row markers. I took advantage of this gracious lull by walking the acreage -something I had been timid about previously, but then, I was also so busy planting. The blue pipes are new, our future irrigation system, and I followed them across the acres. I was lucky- my acre cornered at one of these heads. 

There was much to see in the other farmer's fields -cover crops like oats, greens and kale, brussels and cabbages. My favorite were the corpses of gourds, shattered and filled with rain water.

My journey terminated here, where black compost met a new cover crop. As I approached the compost piles, a tractor made its way over to me. It was Scott, the farmer (and writer -new book just out) who manages the adjacent farm. We chatted about this and that, particularly the problem with his garlic. What's that? Whole rows of garlic have popped up from the soil? Apparently the roots grew so vigorously over the last month, with the soil dry and loose, that those roots pushed the lightweight cloves right out of the soil! 

I was lucky though, wasn't I, for planting more deeply than most. Only my shallow-planted shallots had come up. It's wise to roll the beds (if one has that equipment) so that it uniformly firms the soil over the clove. I do not have this equipment, and hope that my garlic stays put! It may be a while, too long really, before my next visit to the farm in late January.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Courage and Cowardice

It's been a busy week at school, with late nights and no time to post about my most recent trip to the farm. I intended to do so today, but now I am just too wound up about the shooting I heard minor mention of as I drove into work this morning. Now, of course, as we all do, I see how the worst has come to pass. I cannot possibly write about my pastoral experiences while the innocent lives of children are mourned, made even more devastating by the proximity to the holiday.

I cannot pretend to know what was in the hearts of brutal men, but it is ever more clear that there are those without courage, those who cannot take their own lives without first extinguishing the lives of others; witness to a horror of their own making, they can  finally commit to taking their own.

I could say more, but I haven't the heart. Take courage.

Friday, December 7, 2012

December Rain

Our shiny streets create the impression that it has rained, but out at the farm that couldn't be farther from the truth. Clouds haven't delivered more than a trace of rain, less than a 16th of an inch since November 1st. I may go out to the farm this weekend; see if there are any remaining saffron strands to harvest. And if I do, maybe I'll load the inside and outside of the van with as much straw as it can muster, because, perhaps, a real rain may never fall.

Update: it rained (significantly)!

The Farm Road

Is becoming emblematic of my trips to the farm. I have yet to name the farm, so maybe it shall grow out of this passage.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Breaking The Camel

Laying straw, or some other mulch, is the last activity of the garlic grower's season. It's the warm blanket laid over each tucked in clove as the cold air descends on the region for winter. What I am asking now is, is this necessary?

I used straw at the upstate farm last season. It did well to keep weeds down in springtime, although it did make weeds more difficult to spot. Straw also keeps moisture steady, although that was less of a positive thing in the wet soils of the region.  The straw moderates temperature extremes, although last winter hardly saw a hard freeze. Finally, occasional winds took the lighter, thinner-stalked straw and blew it a good distance from their beds.

The farm in Amagansett has much better soil drainage, although it does a decent job of holding water for a time. I plan to use hoeing for weed management over last season's stoop and pull method -greater scale demands this. Straw, while keeping weeds down, will also make it harder to use a hoe. It also happens to be breezy almost every day in between the two waters, and storms will make it downright windy. You can see in the above photo how I've used twine to attempt to hold down the straw I placed on our test row. There are no wind breaks at the farm and it's easy to imagine the straw lodged against the deer fence two hundred feet away.

The argument for straw mulch then rests solely on minimizing frost heave and maintaining soil moisture in spring time. Assuming it rains decently, say once a week, I shouldn't have to concern myself too much with soil moisture, but one can never predict and should take precaution. Any straw I do bring in will need to be truly straw, not hay, and certainly not filled with weed seeds. Bales I bought last November for five bucks each were left field side for three weeks. Each sprouted. I returned to Agway's ten dollar bales, and all did well.

There is one more argument to be made -cost. I'll need roughly 35 bales to cover the rows that require mulching. I've been given prices ranging from 5.50 to 8 dollars a bale. Two hundred eighty dollars for mulch is almost acceptable, but then there is the cost of getting the straw to the farm. I would have to rent a truck at the base price, plus 99 cents per mile, and gasoline and insurance. Now we are looking at possibly five hundred dollars for the straw mulch.

One might think, well, to protect one's investment, isn't it worth the five hundred? That depends. I've planted 6834 garlic cloves. Assume rather foolishly that each and every one of those cloves grows and stores perfectly well. From that quantity we need to subtract roughly 1750 perfectly grown and stored bulbs for next season's seed stock. That leaves a 5084 perfect bulbs left to sell to the garlic loving public.

Before the new year, and without paying myself a dime for any labor both physical and mental, nor factoring in vehicle expenses beyond gasoline, nor any costs associated with a sales location beyond my website, my costs will be $4544. I can expect to shell out another $1000 in gasoline between the new year and harvest's end, another $200 in organic fertilizer, another $400 in tractor, mowing and cover-cropping payments, and an unknown sum for barn space rental for garlic curing and also, extra labor. I tend to imagine the barn rental coming in at $1500 for three months and that number could be a total fantasy. My best guess total is now $7650 for the season.

It is true that I laid out a big sum for seed this year, and next year I shouldn't have to. So, lets spread the seed cost over three years, costing me only $860 this year. That makes our break-even number, a number made up completely of costs minus any personal labor, vehicle expenditures or sales costs, total $6790.

Okay, now let's figure the total price each perfectly grown and stored garlic bulb must cost to make that number back during sales season. Each bulb will need to sell for roughly $1.34 a piece just to recoup my costs. That's not so bad, right? Keith Stewart sells his rocambole at Union Square for $10 to $12 dollars a pound, depending on the time of the season, with 6-7 bulbs per pound depending on size ($1.43 - $1.71).

But I'll need to add some money to that so I can actually pay for labor. Let's imagine I am okay making $10 an hour for my effort and let's also imagine that my time driving to and from the farm (2.5 hours each way), website time, sales time, shipping time, packing time, curing and cleaning time are factored out of the cost. I calculate that I will spend roughly 170 hours working at the farm this growing season, adding $1700 to my cost at $10 per hour, for a new total of $8490.

That makes each perfectly grown and stored bulb worth roughly $1.67. Is that how much you would pay for a locally grown, organic, specialty variety garlic you cannot get anywhere else? Probably not. You will probably have to pay more. Because there will be sales costs, and vehicle expenditures, and labor costs beyond the $10 per hour farmer, and barn rental may be more, and most importantly -there will not be 5084 perfectly grown and stored garlic bulbs at sales time. Unless I am really, really lucky.

I hope that you can see that I'm not doing this for the money. The cost associated with each bulb, at this stage anyhow, is only an attempt to recoup the costs of my endeavor -let's call it an attempt to be expense neutral. Given this, and I've hemmed and hawed on this for two weeks now, I think I've decided not to straw mulch the field. I'll spend a little extra on right and left handed hoes of the highest quality instead. And, as always, I'll hope for rain -just not too much.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Lorz Giant

While I am still growing the often named Artichoke variety "Inchellium Red," I am also growing several other strains, among them "Red Tochliavri (Toch)" and "Lorz Italian." Above is a very large "Lorz." When well grown, the Artichoke variety has a nice storage life, well beyond the Rocambole and Purple Stripe, and some grow with large cloves to the center of the bulb.

Inside another Artichoke.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Good Clove, Bad Clove, Blue Bird

The best clove popping came from the Marbled Purple Stripe variety "Siberian." Here you can see big cloves with tight skins. Simply put, no problems, almost no throw-aways, and very easy to break apart.

You can see what I call 'mole's fingers' pushing out the clove skins at the basal plate. These are new roots growing, letting you know not to delay in planting. Not every clove is so eagerly growing roots, but they should all be planted. 

These two popped cloves have basal plates in good condition. The left has separated from the old stem of the whole bulb, while the right has taken a piece of the old stem with it. Both are great for planting.

This clove has been damaged at the basal plate during popping. The center of the plate has remained with the old bulb's stem. This kind of damage cannot always be helped, particularly with bulbs eager to begin growing. You may still choose to plant this clove, but it has a greater risk of disease because of the damage. Nearly 40 percent of the cloves of one or two varieties of my seed stock popped this way and I chose to plant them as long as the damage didn't extend past the basal plate. You'll know when this damage occurs -you will smell garlic.

On this last day of popping cloves, 5 hours of popping hundreds of bulbs, the farm was visited by a flock of Blue Birds, Sialia sialis. I couldn't get a decent shot with my phone camera, so this digital magnification will have to do. The birds enjoyed perching on the row labels, flying down to the rows and beds eating something from the soil, probably bugs (although I saw so few while I worked).

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Nearer Than Eden

I am usually the only one at the beach farm at this time of the year, but this Sunday I was not alone. There was FEMA and the Red Cross, National Park Rangers from other states, sanitation workers, police, hovering copters, a ready fire department, and Wolf.

As I pulled into the lot I saw him moving slowly toward the garden, cigarette dangling from his lip. His restless and sweet autistic grandson with him as always, but given the cold wind, he remained in the car. Wolf thinks about planting his garlic now, although the work will wait until the new moon of early December. He planted this superstition in my mind last year, and I thought of it as I planted thousands of garlic cloves at the farm through dark nights of November's new moon.

Under Wolf's watchful eye, I turned over the garlic bed once again. It had settled under the inundation, now a stone's throw from its prior glory. In s-curves and coils on the surface, earthworms lay dessicated. As I turned each spade full, we scanned the soil for life, marveling at a termite, a wireworm, and two grubs. I brought a sack of alfalfa meal from the farm to rake into the bed, then, showing off the wheel dibble, marked rows for one hundred eighteen cloves of eleven strains from eight varieties and a handful of French grey shallots.

Afterward, I pulled the fennel seed from our plot, convinced that it would spread all over despite salt water inundation. In fact, the old plants were sending out new shoots -no matter the salt, no matter the season.

The crusty presence on top of the soil is salt. Sandy was a dry storm, for us, and it hasn't rained all that much here since the inundation, certainly not enough to wash the salt down through the soil. Sunday's strong northwesterly winds set grit to my teeth and left a mouth full of brine, reminding me of the hazards of bare soil. I collected a sample to send to a university that has begun testing soils for contaminants likely to have been present in the waters around the metropolitan area. Hydrocarbons, PCBs, sewage, et cetera, et cetera. I think we'll be clean, or at the least, cleaner than some.

As I left the blustery beach farm, I stopped to ask a NPS ranger what he thought would come of the garden. He said that he didn't know, that he was from another state and was only here to help out. He said the Park is a mess, in disarray, and they've a lot to do. Of course. We know that the NPS has, at best, mixed feelings about our little messy paradise. It has crossed our minds that the destruction and possible soil contamination could be reason enough to shut the garden down. I know some gardeners may not be coming back any time soon -they've lost their homes, so what's to garden for? Others will be back, if not until spring. Men like Wolf and myself are already back, turning our beds under the whopping of copters, planting our cloves to the electronica honking of a hundred lifting geese, all within the aura of disaster.

Friday, November 23, 2012


Crocus sativus. They sprouted in the studio. I didn't know if it was flower or leaf that was shooting every which way from each corm. They were the first crop planted when I arrived two weeks ago to begin working the farm.

Beautiful. A nice surprise.

Now, why didn't I harvest the saffron?

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Day Of One's Own

Today was the first day in so very long where everything I had accomplished was completely on a whim.

I went to a barber. For those who don't know, I've long hair, usually tied in a tail. I may have been getting my feet wet before a total commitment, or I may have just been cleaning up. The last time I was in a professional chair was nearly 20 years ago.

Then I went to B&H photo to handle cameras. Never buy a camera you haven't handled. Not that I'm buying, but I've been a new camera customer for almost three years now -ever since my old Canon a80 went. I've had borrowed cameras, and since last Christmas, I've relied solely on the iPhone 4S camera. It's good, but it cannot do it all.

The new cameras offer more and more of what I've been looking for, things B&H employees scoffed at me for suggesting during past handling trips. Small is good, so while I enjoy the feel of certain Nikon models, and while I'm comfortable with Canon systems, all their mirrored cameras are probably out. I enjoyed the ease and functionality of the Canon G15 and the size and looks of the S110, but I like the picture quality of a larger sensor.

Cameras are adding features fast. Buying one is a little like buying a computer (my iMac is 2004 vintage). Canon, Nikon -these say photography, but Sony exudes consumer electronics, and Sony's business is being destroyed by Korean businesses like Samsung (who's cameras are still weak). But they've been making cameras that do much of what I need and better than Panasonic, the consumer electronic company that really kicked open the small, interchangeable lens, larger sensor, mirror less, swivel screen door.

After disappointing all the sales people at B&H, I had a sit down lunch, nothing special, but time-taking. How unusual.

On my way home I needed to pick up some things for tomorrow's meal, this year being hosted by my Sandy-displaced cousin and his girlfriend in a borrowed apartment on Spring Street.

Jeff wanted beef, particularly tenderloin. I stopped at the halal butcher where I buy whole chickens, smoked steak, and occasionally filet mignon. I got that, but new signage encouraged me to ask about a whole lamb. I asked about a whole leg, and impulsively bought. I felt guilty, as if I had too much, but this is the most economical way to buy.

I spent some time on the phone looking for straw bales from Long Island farmers. No simple task, particularly with a mind for the bottom line. I gave up for the time, laid my head back for a nap.

As I type this on the mobile, I'm listening to the Freakonomics radio program. Have you listened to tonight's episode, about local foods? What do you think?

Incidentally, my leg of lamb comes from Pennsylvania, if my butcher is to be trusted.