Monday, March 31, 2014

Rainy Day Beach Farming

The garlic is growing.

Some more eager than others. 'Music,' a porcelain strain, is always slow to start but is better for it.

Here, the earliest of varieties -Turban strain 'Thai Purple.' To the right, another Turban 'Xian.'

'Xian' is a much desired Chinese strain. Turban garlic has always grown quite well for me, but with this lot nearly every clove has rotted. I must remember to contact the farm. Contact the farm (reminder).

'Japanese' or 'Sakura,' another desired strain of the Asiatic variety, has been showing signs of weakness, but nowhere near as much as 'Xian.' It is also a very eager grower.

The regulars at the garden are now calling me the scientist. I am experimenting with mixing my own fertilizers, which I think is a good thing, although despite their claims I am not being scientific (measuring, observing, recording) but I am using my soil test results as the basis for my additions. Above you see Feather Meal (long term nitrogen), Humic Acids (micronutrients), Langbeinite (potassium), Corn Gluten Meal (nitrogen and wee bit of phosphorous) and blood meal (nitrogen). 

Prior experience with corn gluten meal at the fowl-heavy beach farm warns me of the feast and stomp of local geese. Pretty heavy, they do significant damage while chomping down on bits of corn. My reasoning is (hello scientist) that I will be able to discourage them via the scent of bird feather meal (aka dead birds). No, there isn't a significant odor to it, but neither is there to the cornmeal and somehow the geese still find it.

Each row then got a pass of the rake, breaking the winter-skinned soil. After spreading the fertilizing mixture I made another pass of the rake to fix it in place and hope the birds will fear the feathers of the fallen (much doubt).

We had several nights well below freezing lately; it doesn't feel like a month has passed since there was snow on these plots. But soil temperatures are up, above 50 degrees F, and ready for potatoes.

Reds and yellows placed in a trench easily dug thanks to the saturated (by sandy beach farm standards) soil. Afterward I covered with a couple of inches of composted manure and the remains of my fertilizer mix.

Grow potato grow.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Garlic Shank Potatoes

Fridays have become a kind of domestic day this semester, often abetted by the promise of rain or cold. Things missed or avoided during the hectic work week are tackled, sometimes. A blog post, push harder on those taxes (they are complicated by farming), cook a little. Clean? Heck.

Beef shanks from Lowland Farm sprinkled with some of Hudson Clove garlic. Into the pan went the remaining braising sauce, frozen, from the two weeks prior pork hocks.

On garlic, I've come around to narrowing my choices for variety on the farm. Silverskin strains are in. They are small-cloved and less vigorous in the field, but they hold into the spring. Sure, some desiccate and some soften, but I've always managed to keep plenty well into May. I do this without any special storage conditions. Of course, fifty five to sixty degrees F and forty to fifty percent humidity would be ideal, yet I've kept mine in the studio where the humidity was glued to twenty five percent and the temperatures fluctuated from 70 through 90 this winter. I decided a month ago to bring them home where it was cooler with shifting levels of moisture. Still, most of the garlic has not sprouted or dried out. In other words -this is garlic to grow.

I learned something new about potatoes this winter. I had made the decision to buy only organic potatoes because conventionally grown are systemically treated with pesticides and fungicides. To keep prices in check I had been buying organic red, gold, and russets in three or five pound sacks. Here's what I learned -I shouldn't buy large quantities of potatoes beginning mid February because they'll sprout almost immediately. Shouldn't come as a surprise as garlic has a similar tendency, although I'm not at all familiar with the change of conditions required to promote potato budding and rooting. One bag of organic red and another of organic russets from two different farms (Colorado and California) sprouted within days to a week, so from now on, unless I will use them immediately, I will only buy individual potatoes after February.

So what to do with ten pounds of sprouting reds and russets? Against all proper advice, I think I will plant them at the beach farm. I've propped them in a window and will make a bed for them soon. The only concern is that these are not certified seed potatoes. Much like garlic, it is not common practice to grow potatoes from seed. This isn't because they do not produce seed, as is the case with garlic, but because potato seeds are highly erratic hybridizers, producing an incredible range of potato characteristics from sexual reproduction. This is a great trait if your a potato, but lousy if you are a farmer. So, like garlic, potatoes are propagated vegetatively.

Planting potato tubers is reliable and convenient but it also increases the chance of introducing disease organisms to the soil. Certified seed stock potatoes are grown and harvested, a selected lot then shipped off to a warmer climate (often Florida) and grown out for disease inspection all before the spring planting season. A farm's potatoes can be certified seed stock only if a great percentage of those potatoes growth-tested show no signs of significantly harmful diseases. When you plant store bought, organic food potatoes (conventionally grown potatoes may have been treated with growth inhibitors), there is always a risk of disease. I've discarded any damaged tubers and will plant only the healthy looking ones. No matter where you get your potatoes, there is always risk of disease. Let your level of caution be your guide.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Snow Spring

I remember an April as a child. It was cloudy and as I recall not all that cold. My mother was home and I was toolin around on my bicycle with my brother on the handlebar. Then, out of nowhere, it began to snow, giant clusters of frozen precipitation. My brother, younger than I, was frightened by this and wanted to go in but I resisted -until the giant clap of thunder! That was a snow in April. 

So this is still March, and night, and I'm not six. Yet still, a snowfall after the start of spring is worth noticing. 

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Spring's Curmudgeon

Spring break is an opportunity to tackle too much that is undone. Yesterday's tasks, under warmer temperatures and gentler breezes, was to pick the trash out of the apartment's garden, pay the Fed for this year's plots, and spread some fertilizers at the beach farm because, after all, there is only two months between today and the beginning of garlic harvest. Well, I do expect to harvest later than usual this year, barring an insanely rapid rise in temperature (which I feel is rather unlikely), but still the organic fertilizers need time to activate and there's little reason for delay.

I've come over the last three years of growing a quantity and variety of garlic to expect disappointment. Serious food farmers are not interested in disappointment, it is a waste of time and money, and accordingly tend to grow the hardiest of garlic. I, with my interest in variety and shelf-life, the slightest shifts in flavor and heat, have to get comfortable with failure. And failure comes, like clockwork, each spring.

Today, I pulled out almost all of the Asiatic strain 'Japanese' (sometimes called 'Sakura') and a good amount of the Turban strain 'Xian' due to rot. Although there was consistent snow cover, and therefore moisture, our beach farm soil is exceptionally drained. I detected no insect, such as the corn seed maggot, saw no apparent mold, just stunted, browning growth and leaves easily separated from the rotting clove below. My guess is botrytis that came with the seed garlic, but I cannot be sure. So, what can I do? Simply dig out the offending plants and hope that the others hold out.

One of the difficulties of gardening in New York City is getting nutrient-specific fertilizers. There is no point in trying out the box stores (I know this because I do anyway). It doesn't help that the clerks at our city's garden centers appear to know little beyond fertilizer basics. Why is it so easy to confound them by asking for K, potassium, or potash (all names for the same thing)? After all, K is one of the big three, like Ford, GM, and um, what's the other one...? So N-P-K, you know nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium, should roll off the tongue of a garden clerk like Ford, GM, and Chrysler rolls off the tongue of the UAW. 

So I need K, potassium, and the problem is that I want to stick to best organic practice, it should be OMRI listed at the least. Okay, good enough, there are several naturally derived substances with K (kelp and fish meals, for instance) but, according to my soil tests, I need between 50 and 100 lbs of K per acre for each of my three plots, which means that I need a lot of kelp meal. Kelp typically comes with a K rating of 2, which means I would need over 50 lbs of Kelp Meal ($99.99 + shipping at for my 600 square feet. Clearly I need a source with a higher K rating than Kelp. Fortunately I can order Langbeinite (sometimes called SulPoMag), a mined salt that carries a K rating of 22, requiring just under 5 pounds ($8.99+ shipping Groworganic) for my 600 square feet.

At the risk of getting whiny, I prefer not to buy these organic fertilizers from California (or Maine, etc.) and have them shipped, often doubling the price. I would love to walk into a gardening supply store in NYC, where the clerk knows what I'm looking for, and walk out carrying organic supplements. Instead, what I find are myriad synthetics, some Espoma products (I do use these), toxic-sounding Hi Yield, random liquid fish and bat guano. It is much easier to find organic nitrogen and phosphorous, both covered well by Espoma. The K, however, is muriate of potash (also known as potassium chloride or KCl) with a K rating 0-0-60 and not desirable under organic standards because of the chlorine it adds to the soil.

I know that space is a problem in our small city garden centers, so they can't carry everything. Still, there are none that fully cater to an organic gardening customer (hydroponic stores offer some solutions). Part of the problem is the customer. They want flowers, they want vegetables, but they don't have time for soil science and soil tests. And when they do get their soil tested, the results are hard to understand. So when they go to buy fertilizers, they do it in an uninformed way, and go for the all-in-one solution. For most people, the numbers on the bag communicate more or less N-P-K, but that's about it.

If gardeners think of fertilizer as only food for plants, then what harm is there in putting down more than is required? The plants will either grow bigger or simply won't "eat" what they don't need, right? This dumbing down isn't helpful at all. If you want to properly fertilize, you need to understand a little chemistry, because that is really what it is -so much more than hungry plants. In the meantime, before you earn that degree in chemistry, just get a soil test and see what the people who understand that stuff say about your soil. Certain labs (I use the UMass Extension Center For Agriculture because the instructions are simple and the cost affordable) will give you pounds per acre recommendations on N-P-K which you can then put into this exceptional calculator to derive how much commercially available fertilizer you will need for each nutrient. A soil test and N-P-K calculator takes the guess work (and the math) out of your fertilizer problem, helping us become knowledgeable customers and gardening stores better supplied.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Stinkbug Winter

What is the longest crocus season I have seen since I've been looking at such things. Nothing to complain about, really, as it has made the ubiquitous late winter flower worth looking for. Mine have been quite spotty, an appearance here, a show of it there.

One other thing to note about this winter, maybe you've experienced it: an abundance of stinkbugs -inside. First it was in a motel room in Naperville, Illinois. They kept popping up to the delight or horror of the cat. Later, at a meeting in Westbury, Long Island, I spotted one crawling on the milk carton provided with our coffee. Just this last Saturday, in a friend's spotless home, northeast of Peekskill, New York, one was hightailing it across the hardwood floor.

I have not researched this. Have you seen an abundance of indoor stinkbugs this winter?

Update: Ok, this probably answers it, now that I've googled it. Please, spare yourself the comments. I had no idea that National Geographic had the kind of reader that would equate a stinkbug in winter with the President, Global Warming, and Nazis. Criminy.

Friday, March 14, 2014

A Little Color

After an inordinate amount of time searching for OMRI listed sources of Potassium for the beach farm, and not purchasing any, I needed to leave the apartment. I had seen the pale blue crocus in bloom on the warm day before the cold day, but had no time to stop and admire them, electronically. Today, however, I caught these larger, more robust flowers recently emerged from the leafy mat, and just before shadow took the corner.

Stepping into the side yard, the path stones squished under my weight, a season's worth of frost heave visible and then, the acrid bouquet of a season's worth of feline manure. I considered, briefly, picking up the winter's twigs, leaves, and trash deposits, but moved on to my intentions, sure enough there would be another 45 degree day for that.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Gift

The New York Times, the paper of record, has finally thrown me a bone, for my birthday.

I was in brief conversation with the NYT reporter via email a month or so ago about the situation for artists at Industry City and elsewhere in NYC. I've chronicled my feelings about this several times on these pages (here is one), so I will not go into yet another rant on the subject. However, I will say that I am critical of the NY Times for their inability to report this story. Whether intentions were good or not, it always appeared as if, in selling the story to an editor, it required spinning into a glorified real estate advertisement.

The latest story focuses on mid-career artists, those who've been around for quite some time, and their "studio journey." I appreciate that focus because it is the older artists that are hurt the most by drastic rent increases -our lives more inflexibly built around our salaries, pay that is tied to the going rates years ago. The youngest artists are often more flexible and deal with today's rents by group shares of studios or apartments. By force of youth, they also may have less stuff. Every time I have to move to a smaller place, I have to consider which things to throw away.

Now, five months after being forced out of my old studio (it still sits empty) by Industry City, I have finally been able to get organized enough to start working again. This may be the biggest tragedy, if I can use such a term, for artists -the unsettled do not make art, so much time is lost. For whatever it's worth, below is my response to the NY Times reporter.


Since 2004 I have had studios in Red Hook, then Dumbo, then Industry City. Before then I always worked out of the apartments. A resident of Williamsburg in the 90s, I was priced out of those apartments after I returned from grad school in 2000. I've lived in Kensington Brooklyn since 2003.


Of course my problem with IC is not their desire to make a return on their investments, but their tactics, general mistrust of artist tenants in good standing, incorrect billing, giant rent increases, and failing to recognize or care how much productivity is lost when they force us to move on their whims. Their interest in art has always, unashamedly, been to promote their real estate offerings. I can't even blame them -that's the model, nationally.

It is clear IC is not interested in artist tenancy, or at least not the kind that artists have taken for granted over the last 40 years -those post industrial warehouse spaces are gone thanks largely to residential development and the vogue for loft living, the conversion of the working waterfront to the living waterfront.

I feel like the NYTimes has difficulty writing this story. Instead it turns into some kind of real estate advertisement (as proclaimed the last article's headline (SOHO?). 

As it happens, my wife has rented another unit with IC in another building and I, begrudgingly decided to share. We went from 1000 sf to 500, but we pay way more than before (by the sqft). After searching for a year (2009 I went without a studio after leaving Dumbo due to the crazy Two Trees rent increase), it became clear that there is no longer any "affordable" and "useful" (to make physical objects) studio space here. I think artists are sensitive to talking about this because their studio is directly linked to their professional life. No one is eager to talk about not being able to afford a studio, being priced out, not selling enough art to afford the rent or working so much at the day job to pay the studio rent that their practice suffers. 

Sure, there are plenty of people in NYC who are artists and can afford the rent, but the Times needs to ask "who and what are we losing?" I firmly believe we will see the shift to regional cities that have suffered greatly as NYC rockets out of reach.

But enough of that. It's a nice day out there, and it is my birthday. Caio.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Group Hog

If you've been following lately, you know that I made the decision to eat only humanely raised and slaughtered meat from now on, or for as long as I can find a way to pay for it. If that proves difficult, I will simply need to eat less meat. So, like anyone searching for something these days, I hit the Internet looking for farms. After digging through the densely packed Eatwild site for New York or New Jersey farms that were both within reasonable driving distance from Brooklyn and had a whole hog price that was within my price range, I emailed three. Of those three, only one contacted me, and that was Lowland Farm. Located in Warwick, NY, the farm is under a two hour drive and their whole hog prices were bested by only one of my picks, a farm that is 2 to 3 hours drive farther from us than Lowland. It didn't hurt that my favorite hard pear cider is produced in the same town, just up the road.

Jason, the farm manager, emailed me almost immediately, and immediately I began to ask questions. I was fortunate that in less than a month hogs were going to the slaughterhouse. Some farms do not slaughter midwinter at all, and my guess is that a winter slow down enabled Jason to spend additional time answering so many questions. Once I had a basic understanding of the process, I enlisted five additional households to share the hog, because who has room in their apartment freezer for 150 pounds of meat? Of course, enlisting five households also meant tending to several different needs and wants and questions. But Jason stood up to that challenge and once we settled on a cut and cure list, I sent it, along with a $300 deposit, to the farm in Warwick, and then we waited.

Mid-February their hogs traveled to Pennsylvania for the slaughter. A farm the size of Lowland has USDA rules to follow, including the required use of a USDA inspected facility. If there is any weak link in farm to table, it's the slaughterhouse. As you might expect, it's not an open process, although Jason did what he could to reassure me that it was as humane as one might hope given the killing of several animals in a single day. The slaughterhouse is also the processor, which means they butcher, cure, package, and freeze the meat. I can't say that I am entirely unhappy with the processing, but some things were left to be desired. For instance, the curing process is the conventional model of salt, sugar, and nitrite. Another is the processor's habit of not providing the unusual cuts, such as the feet, the cheeks, and even the leaf lard. I am told it is cost prohibitive for the processor to scald the pigs, so that skin is not provided on any cuts. I am curious what happens to these parts if they do not get sent back to the farm, and even more curious about the parts we do not request. We could work around the cure issue by requesting only fresh cuts, leaving them to be cured or smoked by us. Of course, I don't have a smoker or the knowledge to cure meats, but I don't require my ham or hocks cured and there's much you can do with fresh belly. However there is little we can do to receive those parts we find desirable, like skins for ChicharrĂ³n, braciole, or a succulent shoulder roast.

There is no way to know the weight of your hog until pickup, so in order to get a handle on the tally I had to devise a price schedule based on the averages given to me by Jason. One thing that must be understood when buying whole animals is that we pay for part of the animal that we will never eat. Our tally is based on the hanging weight, the weight of the whole hog after evisceration. Our hog, at 237 pounds hanging, was fifty pounds heavier than the average. For us, that amounted to roughly eighty pounds -or $360. Now before you holler about that, understand that this price is always included in the cost of any meat, whether it is bought by the cut on farm, at your butcher, or at the grocery store. On top of this cost, I added gas and tolls to our groups tally, bringing our per pound price to $7.06.

Now, if you are inclined to buy only ribs, ground pork, or shoulder, you could spend less buying only those cuts if the farm has them in the freezer. When you buy the whole hog, you pay the same price for ground pork as well as thick-cut loin chops, loin roast, cured ham, bacon, and tenderloin. Not only is the price equalized when buying this way, but we are also guaranteed those cuts. Consider, as well, if you were to purchase pork at a NYC Greenmarket, where the $7.06 we paid per pound comes in lower than nearly any cut, including ground pork. While I am sure there is a great magnitude New Yorkers who don't think twice about the cost of pasture raised meat at Greenmarket, I feel confident stating that cost is the single largest roadblock to buying humanely raised meat. If you want different cuts, buying the whole hog is the lowest cost way to do it.

Saturday, the first of March, was pickup day. The weather was warm, hovering around freezing, and the sun was bright. I was excited to see the farm, to step over the notion that this kind of participation is merely nostalgic or cute. Me and Dino, one of our group, left Brooklyn at 8:30 am, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, virtually without traffic, heading to the Willis Avenue Bridge, then up the Deegan toward I 95 southbound and the GWB. Once over the Hudson, we headed up route 4, then 208, clearly taking the scenic route. We arrived at the hills, farms, old homes and weekenders of the New York-New Jersey Highlands in under two hours. Pine Island, that agricultural deposit, sat below, in the Walkill River valley, due northwest.

Slowly cruising the farm road toward the Lowland store, we passed several cows eyeing us with curiosity.

We parked adjacent to a stone wall boundary, just to the side of the pig barn. Behind the wall, bee boxes.

Inside, manning the store was a friendly gentleman (I've forgotten his name) who managed to carry out three very heavy boxes, each filled with cuts of frozen pork. Here, we discovered our hog's hanging weight (237 lbs), wrote a check for the balance, and packed the van. There was really no sound place to eye through the boxes, to unpack them, considering all that was there and the sense, too, that you want to get your frozen meat to its destination as soon as possible. A check-list would be useful here and I've suggested that to the farm manager. As it turned out, I had no idea our order was missing the much desired leaf lard and cheeks until we divided the cuts at our distribution point. I emailed Jason later that day, and he apologized, offering to provide us with a credit for these on my next visit to the farm.

I thought it may be difficult to see the young pigs, but that didn't turn out to be the case. I enjoyed seeing them, and their surroundings, but didn't think twice about eating the hog that two weeks prior was rummaging around this very same space -a long stone barn with timber beams and billowy straw. When we entered, the pigs, most only 16 weeks old, scurried as fast as possible to the farthest reaches of the barn, but within a minute or so they came scampering back to check us out.

A full sized hog, not unlike the one which gave its life for us.

The young and mature are separated by fencing, but they interact in ways you undoubtedly will find cute.

The young hogs scampering towards us after some apples were thrown into the pen.


My counter top collection of different cuts. The ground pork, to the left, is considerably darker than the pork I've purchased at our local co-op. The hock, to the right edge, will be used for a spectacular and unconventional osso buco sometime in the future. The one point five inch thick center loin chops, bone-in, we had Sunday. Juicy, but a milder pork taste than my preferred dark meat cuts. I need a recipe! Bacon, to the back, is cut twice as thick as your average store bought, but not too chunky -just right. Each slice has a nice balance of fat and meat. Betsy and I have not had bacon in our refrigerator for years; now we have three pounds. For my taste it is a little too salty eaten solo, but sits well once you fit it into a sandwich. We generally do not salt our food much, so whether or not there is too much salt is hard for us to judge. I would prefer genuinely smoked bacon, not salt, brown sugar, and nitrite cured -but this is standard practice, and we are unlikely to find a processor who will do otherwise at this price.

The jowl is huge, several pounds, cured, and tender beyond my expectation. I frequently buy guanciale, an Italian specialty bacon, but use very little at a time. A jowl this big encourages thicker slices. Although not at all cured like guanciale, the taste it adds to foods is phenomenal. I cut it into smaller chunks and placed it in the freezer.

Everyone received certain cuts, but then we haggled over what remained -the tenderloins, loin roasts, additional chops, bacon, and hocks. A breakdown of the 29.5 pounds of pork our house received:

-Shoulder roast of several pounds
-Fresh ham of several pounds
-Four 1.5 inch thick loin chops
-About three pounds of ribs
-One large shank
-Very large cured jowl
-Three pounds of cured, sliced bacon
-Five pounds of ground pork

I am quite happy with the quality and service I received from Lowland and I look forward to building a relationship with them. If you do not have a car, you can always visit NYC Greenmarket to find pasture raised meats. There are butchers in town who also carry pasture raised meats, including Harlem Shambles in, you guessed it, Harlem and Fleisher's in Park Slope. Undoubtedly there are others, too, and as always there are the local co-ops and organic meats at Whole Foods and other large stores. But, if you want to connect directly with a farm, see the animals, and save a few dollars, there's no better way than to buy straight off the farm.