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.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Farm Overnight

It's not quite seven pm. There's just enough light from the sinking sliver of a moon to put the darkest things in relief.

As I arrived to pay for my night of camping at Hither Hills State Park, the exiting park employee said that they were closed, as tomorrow is the last day. Of course, I went by the schedule, figuring a Sunday close date means Saturday night camping.

I headed to Montauk, the town, to find a place to wash up and eat some dinner. Afterward, I headed back toward the farm, stopping at the IGA market, where upon checkout I was offered a free, old school date book with faux leather cover.

At the farm road turn off, I turned to only running lamps, not wanting to attract attention or the ire of the land trust. I heard deer rustling in the woods as I opened the gate. They want in.

I slipped out of my boots and jeans and for a moment took to the chilled air, then sank comfortably into the most functional sleepwear -pocketed sweatpants. The temperature here will undoubtedly be colder than it will be at the ocean beach. It's already 35 degrees F at an early seven o seven pm. I expect it to freeze.

I learned a few things from last week's camping -primarily that the van's down-folded double rear seat is only comfortable if you are less than five feet long. This time I brought my wife's studio cot along. It sets up lengthwise, filling up the empty center of the van where the middle seats typically reside. I removed those yesterday in anticipation of better sleep. The rear of the cot, leg folded up, rests upon the rear seat. All the farm's garlic fills the remainder of the van.

Camping privilege, and the warm shower and restroom it provides, now lost, I'd like to finish all my planting tomorrow. A friend is taking the ridiculously long LI double R train trip to Amagansett station so he can help out. My brother should also be along near one tomorrow.

I've planted nearly 2500 sets last weekend. Will we be able to knock out another 5000 in 8 hours?

Friday, November 16, 2012

Taking The Field

A field of any size can be daunting. It is helpful to stake the territory, to frame the work.

Dibbler's delight, a working prototype.

In well-tilled and disced soil, the wheel dibble makes its mark six inches apart, eight across.

The soil here, on this unnamed farm, is like cocoa. No stones, nothing, just pure sandy loam. There are, however, a constant amount of tilled under stolons of grass, or next spring's menace. The tractor belongs to the previous or current farmer, the same man, it's just that I don't know what his plans are.

That tractor made these rows, some better, some tilled too thinly. Of course, I would prefer eight inches of deep tilling, but at best I got five and some rows only one or two. Rows are lighter, deeper, and cleaner at the edges of the field, while the center rows fill wildly with grass. This tells me something about the movement of water through the field, and maybe soil amendments too. Sweet potatoes were grown in the one hundred by 90 foot section I am putting to garlic, and under those rows plenty of chopped orange spud.

We had anticipated rain this past Tuesday, and saw some here in NYC, although less than it may have seemed. I had hoped for a dousing to water in the newly planted cloves and to activate the amendments spread on every row, but the farm received no rain at all. I'll be back out to plant on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. The weather, although cooler than last weekend, looks to be dry. I pop cloves at night, in anticipation.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Beside Myself

How I see The Hamptons. A cliche.

Is there something more, maybe undiscovered or, at least, undisclosed?

A glimpse beyond the drapery.

By most measures, I am not a farmer. 

 Yet still, I reap what I sow.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Go Time

This is a snow pile outside my place of work near Columbus Circle. By afternoon, I expect it to be half this size, and gone tomorrow. I can only laugh at the Frank farms smack down that has been the past several weeks. One of the reasons for planting on the Island was to avoid the weather that can afflict upstate at this time of the year. Except, upstate has gotten little in the way of weather and the Island received it all! The temperatures this Sunday and Monday look to be around 60 degrees F in Amagansett. Ideal sums that up.

Tonight, after work, I will make my way to the studio to collect all the things I might need for A) preparing a quarter acre field for planting 10,000 cloves, bulbs, and corms, B) living out of my van for two nights on the beach near Montauk. The challenge of distance farming is completely logistical -having what you need when you need it. This project breaks down when I cannot plan and execute efficiently. 

The soil on the farm is very low in organic matter, 1.7%, and my margins are so slim that I cannot afford to buy the 30 yards of compost that it would take to get the field to a respectable percentage. I do not even want to think of  the work needed to spread it without equipment. I can only add organic, granular fertilizers to help my cloves along. But you know what, I'm feeling lucky. 

It'll be a little strange sleeping on the ocean after so much destructive power displayed only a week ago. Wish me luck and warmth! If I have any 3G on the beach in Montauk, I'll post from mobile. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

An Absence Of Work

Head packed as with wadded cotton, infection's heat flushing through extremities, sore back from work not yet done, I headed out, to vote, and having gone that far, I headed farther out, to school. It was the best thing I could do to overcome what hadn't been done. Today, through verses of excuses four stanza long, my students worked me hard, and I let them, as I hustled, to the left, then doubling back, trying it this way, now that. The absence of work is the curse of the super storm. The stress of none in the face of so much possible cast illness upon me. So I recuperate through work, while snows fall on Central Park, and all those without roofs, and doors shiver in the mad gyrations of November weather.


Friday, October 26, the Peconic Land Trust and I came to agreement on the terms of our relationship. On that same day the insurance brokerage informed me that they were unable to bind any policies until at least two days after the storm -the insurers were nervous. And right. The rental agreement is dependent on my ability to show a certificate, and so once again everything was delayed. On Sunday, October 28, I hustled out to Amagansett in the wee hours.

The Trust had offered new land, land that had not seen the neighboring farm's equipment, the neighboring farm which, two years prior, had contracted the deadliest of garlic pests, Ditylenchus dipsaci, from bad seed. Garlic Bloat Nematode is transported in soil, via tractor or boot, and I did not want to be bound to three years of restoration should those tractors and boots deliver the pest. I pushed for a single year lease, and on this we finally agreed.

New land required a soil test, and the sooner the better, for soil work so late in the season is usually for naught, but I couldn't help myself, I needed to do something. While scoping out the new plot, this season's farmer, a young man, seemed to conceal his thoughts about the field. He's going to try his hand in Vermont, wants his own soil to keep. He said this field is nutrient poor. Not encouraged, but tired, and drained of options, I left his experience there with him, choosing instead to utilize the coming hurricane rain, to make the most of my plot.

Little in the way of a commercial agricultural infrastructure remains on Long Island. Something as simple as finding agricultural lime, aglime, is nearly impossible. I found myself at an almost ironically named Agway, in Bridgehampton, pestering lazy counter people about their stock of lime. I bought 120 pounds of their high priced pelletized, fast-acting, no magnesium lime because something was better than nothing at this point. Over choppy ground, tilled but not disced, I sweated yanking a dime store spreader to and fro across this quarter acre. The rains had still not come, the wind began to whip, and at least something had been done.

The storm wreaked havoc over hundreds of nautical miles and the southern prong of Long Island's fork was not spared. I have yet to see the damage, although the mind's eye fixes on that stretch where the eagerly romantic Georgica Pond licks Old Montauk Highway. I dared not venture out the one hundred miles, uneasy about getting in the way, an unending search for gasoline, and the Trust's admonition that without lease, no work shall be done. The brokerage provided that Monday, a week after our storm, at the earliest, could insurance be bound. The power out, I could not communicate this to the Trust, but mailed the signed lease to them anyway, on Wednesday, Halloween. That week of storm's imposition, of domestic solitude, gave negative solace to my long spinning wheels.

On Friday, the second, I received a mobile email from the Trust. They were just now getting power and restoring their sense of order. The young farmer I met before the storm is required to restore his plot, and further, he must prepare the field for me. He didn't seem to mind doing the extra work now that his season was at a close. He said he would have the discing done on Friday and the smoothing done by Sunday. Incredible, I thought. Movement! I hastened to be there this past Monday, November five, and told him as much.

It was on Sunday, the fourth, that I rose with the sore in my throat. Another week of delay for all that work to be done, that work which formerly spread comfortably across the weekends of autumn, now crammed into the short days of November. Today, finally, although not without quandary, I mailed the contracts and money for binding my insurance. I await the certificate to present to the Trust, and with caution I say that this Saturday, November ten, the long road to renting farmland will near its end.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Civil Defense

I am glad the sun is shining. My apartment is cold, but not because of the storm. It just is in winter.

What we've lost to sandy is only peripheral -a flooded studio basement that means no heat there, and a garden out on the Rockaway peninsula, and a week of lost pay.

On Saturday, we responded to a last minute, urgent call for hot food for 100 volunteers at the Red Hook farm run by Added Value. After a shopping sprint, we headed down to the farm, setting up our extra large camp stove and ingredients amongst 75 or so volunteers doing cleanup. There were only a couple of boxes of coffee and a pizza, so we felt confident we did the right thing. By the time we had our water boiling, ten or fifteen other people had arrived with several foil trays of pre-cooked hot food. I felt pretty dumb. There was now more food than this group could consume and our cooking had only begun. I turned off the stove, packed it up, and headed to the BBG to find respite.

Some folks may maintain that they have been largely unaffected by the storm, but I hardly think that is true. This is a stressful time for everyone in the region, whether you are high and dry or not. For us the constant horns from the gas lines a block away, or the continual fb updates about what is needed and where, the dropping needle on the fuel gauge. It's my cousin in Red Hook who needs a place to live with his girlfriend and Great Dane (do cats like Danes?). It's family and friends on LI who have been without power and are running on empty. It may even be a farm out on the east end that should've been set up by now and continues to have to wait (a source of stress for all of October).

This Sunday I started to feel ill. Today, the throat is sore and the sneezing never ends. I think of all the people at their damaged homes, in shelters, sleeping on floors. The cold is here to stay. The stress on them is enormous. Wednesday's weather will exacerbate all that is not working. What happens as they get colds or the flu?

As a city, we were unprepared for the entirety of effects of this storm. I thought I was, but now I see that I was a prepared individual, not a prepared citizen, and not nearly as prepared emotionally as I thought.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Where The Sidewalk Ends

If you've ever made this approach to the beach at Ft. Tilden, you immediately sense what is wrong. Right, you would never have seen the ocean through the abandoned Cold War building.

To the east and to the west, the dunes which protected this barrier land from the strongest storms are completely washed away. Their sand washed across the peninsula or westward, deposited on Staten Island or Jersey shores. The old pilings used to encourage dunes are now visible. This shoreline is now ever more vulnerable to a winter's worth of nor'easter.

This sign, Unprotected Beach, had washed half way across the soccer fields. Unprotected. The most damage to the shore came at locations severely disturbed by human activity and it is no surprise that the wash over was complete around the dunes where thousands hang out in summer.

Inside this damaged structure a reminder of part of Gateway's mission. 

This location, mostly untouched by ocean waters, lies just to the east of the major pass through for beach goers.

The textures caused by the rush of water are beautiful, despite the destruction they suggest.

Signs of life return on the untouched sand. 

The Jacob Reis beach held up to the storm, having lost some sand, but remaining largely intact. The Robert Moses built ocean-front structures have been built with storms in mind.

The golf course took on water and sand, making it hospitable for the many shore and migratory birds we saw on the greens and floating on new ponds.

The ocean pushed through the peninsula over the road that cuts between Reis and Ft. Tilden, waters ponding in the low spots of the park.

Bittersweet everywhere; their seeds dispersed by flood waters.

A chair, looking no worse for the wear, embedded lightly into the sand as the storm tide receded. 

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Beach Into The Farm

Not a second after we parked our van beside Ft. Tilden did we see the evidence of the storm surge over the peninsula. Chain link like a sieve, capturing, recording the evidence of the height, direction, and speed of inundation.

Walking into the park, eerily without guard or spectator, our feet sunk slightly into the still spongy grounds. The residents of the brick dwellings inside the park were pumping water from basements while their children played amongst the fallen trees and debris.

Is it an irony that the Ft. Tilden gardens look almost as bad after a storm surge as they normally do? The disorder of our community garden was the target of the National Park Service, our hosts, this autumn. Gardeners were asked to clean up their plots, which some had, but many had not. Most of the debris scattered down surge belonged to the unkempt plots. It was, in fact, thanks to some more tangled plots upsurge from the beach farm, that our plot had fared rather well. That is if you consider soil soaked with salty brine faring well.

Just two weeks back I patted myself on the back for such excellent soil improvement in the tomato beds. These were prepared for Thanksgiving week's garlic planting. I marveled at the size and quantity of earth worms, the rich color and excellent tilth. But now, the beds were littered with desiccated earthworms; the water and salt too much for them. Earthworms rise to the soil surface whenever the soil becomes overly saturated. On Monday evening, they rose to find themselves under the sea.

In the garden shed was evidence of the water's height -silty striae cover all that stored inside. On the fences, deposits of plant litter suggested the movement of water across the peninsula. In the distance, white sand dunes splayed onto sports fields; the sea's glistening crenulations now visible from the farm.

Had there been much rain from the storm, our soils would have rinsed of some salt. Irrigation has been cut off since early October, so we cannot "wash" the soil of deposited salt. All we can do is wait for rain. How much contamination came with the water is difficult to say. The remaining water had not the oily film of flooded streets, so I can only reasonably assume this surge was as clean an ocean water as can be expected for the New York bight.

The remaining herbs, fennel bulbs, brassica, carrots, and Marie's strawberries had a grey film which clouded the air when disturbed. If the herbs survive the inundation, they will be cut back hard. We are forecast to receive a moderate nor'easter this Wednesday which won't be helpful to the recovery effort, but will help wash some of the salt through the soil.