Friday, May 22, 2009

Eggplant into the Field

As I suspected, the eggplant got moved outdoors along with the remainder of the chiles. This wave of transplanting is now completed and a relatively empty greenhouse is full of space to be filled with seedings and seedlings of future cabbages, broccolis, lettuces, etc... A huge amount of planting will continue outdoors in the next couple of weeks too including cucumbers, melons, winter squash, beans, etc... When you grow a little of everything and do it in Sonoma County, a grower's paradise, there really is no end to what can be done, hence another example that the farmer's job never ends.

A variety of eggplant await their turn to be let loose to the wild conditions of the farm fields.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

In the Field: The State of Summer Produce

A quick photo tour of what lies just around the corner as we near the start of an early summer harvest season at the farm. A walk through the fields right now provides views that are mostly green as fruiting summer plants come closer to growing strong and mature and offering the colorful seasonal bounty of summer and harvest seasons. There is plenty of food out there right now though and starting the week after this one, the farm stand will be open for regular season hours, soon the CSA will be a weekly event once again, and free time for farmers (if there ever was any) will be a thing of the distant winter past.

I found the earliest tomatoes hanging around on some vines yesterday as I walked to the back of the field for some lettuce. An outstanding green tomato such as this and it is still May, I was inspired to share the sight of it.

Not far from the green tomato, I peeked in at the earliest planting of summer squash to find baby zucchini well established and loving the recent quick heat wave we had a couple of days back.

Carrots hide their progress underground quite well, you often must pull a few or keep track of their "days to maturity" to get an idea of what lies beneath the soil. The tops are vibrant in color in the afternoon sun. Long rows of these frilly carrot tops are eye candy in themselves, but before long the roots that are often as sweet as candy will return.

The onions are called Red Burger and I think these were grown from saved seed. I have some in my home garden and they were from seeds we had saved last season. It is a nice early crop of good sized red onions. These you do not have to wait for, they are already being harvested for sales. Harvesting onions in spring provides a full onion bulb, but may lack some of the storage qualities like the dry outer paper and the dried back stem. Instead, you get to see the vibrant red of the onion and have a nice, sturdy green stem with which to carry your onion home. No bags needed.

Cabbages are not huge yet as they tend to get in the Tierra fields, but they are forming their heads and are recognizable. Fresh sweet cabbage and new sour batches of sauerkraut will return before long.

And finally, some broccoli florets are well formed and nearly mature. Here comes the vast array of fresh vegetables, get ready to start enjoying the bounty of the 2009 season!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Working in the Greenhouse: An Ideal Environment

The greenhouse is an enclosed workspace with various rooms, or chambers. As someone who is ever-seeking to get outside no matter where I am or what I'm doing, I view the greenhouse as an ideal cubicle environment. In my practical experience being stuck in a cubicle where I really once was, the environmental conditions are usually quite poor. I always recall trying to escape my cube by watching the glass mirror-ball up above on the ceiling (there was no window, of course) which really only gave me views of people walking to and from the bathroom nearby. Some characteristics I recall include stagnant air carrying various odors of people, food, and other unknowns; loud voices carrying on personal or professional conversation distracting from your work focus; trash; ergonomic challenges; electronics both functioning and broken equally as often; etc... In the greenhouse, these undesirable characteristics are little to none and you are surrounded by a grand array of greenery for ambience.

The greenhouse is primed to offer the optimal conditions to plants. This is also a haven for people and perhaps pests find their way in (see aphids having a late Cinco de Mayo fiesta atop the foliage of this chile plant). I cannot complain about being stuck indoors when working in a greenhouse. Sometimes it even beats outdoors on days that are windy, too cold, rainy. It gives a refuge on those less ideal days where the work that serves the farm may still continue.

This greenhouse update includes very mature eggplants. I am only guessing these could be on their way out to the field soon after the chiles are all in the ground. The current state of the eggplant causes a watering challenge. The plants have an umbrella of foliage that blocks overhead sprinkles and requires some brushing aside of leaves and up close attention to be sure they get their daily water ration.

As I work in my cubicle, surrounded in plants, I learn. This season amongst the laundry list of lessons I take home from this job, I really focused on soil nutrition in the greenhouse. Lee is blessed with incredible soil to work with as Wayne is a master compost-maker. Some situations require the sterile soil mixes you see bagged up for greenhouse work, other times using something with a little more life inside it is the better choice. Things to think about are what sort of pot or flat you are using, what sort of seeds, how long they will stay in one pot, whether they will get additional fertilizing or be potted up. I have seen various greenhouses at work this spring, including my own mini-operation at home, and I feel enriched in my own abilities by my experience working along with the decisions I have seen Lee make in her role as a greenhouse manager.

Finally, a report of my "office" tasks in the greenhouse. I seeded an entire new round of basil yesterday to compensate for plants that went outdoors a litte too soon this season. They did not frost to death, but many of them are looking less that ideal. My second assignment was amaranth. Many kinds will be grown this year and not just for ornamental foliage, but edible foliage and edible seeds/grains. I am sure this is a topic to be touched on further in the future. Amaranth is for the patient and focused seeder. Seeds are tiny and I anticipate will become a common weed around the farm after growing this quantity of pants. They must drop millions of small grains if allowed to go to seed in the field.

Chile Planting Time!

From the greenhouse to the field, the chiles are currently amidst a major transition in their annual lifetime. Let us follow them from their cushy home in the greenhouse (note the cleared out spaces of chile trays in the image to the left) where they may be running out of root space in their little pots to the field where plenty of root space and soil nutrition is available in abundance, but the outdoor environment could offer new challenges for survival (including wind, temperature fluctuations, water variability, pest exposure, etc...)

An important component of this operation that occurs during transportation is keeping track of all the varieties. Tierra grows so many types peppers and chiles that the subcategories bewilder me each time I go hunting for a particular variety. There are sweet peppers, pimientos, chipotle types, drying chiles, New Mexicos, frying chiles and peppers, the really hot Chinenese types and so many more. I'd have to consult the lists to recite them all. So this is another place in the system where record-keeping is a key element. With careful records, we are able to easily consult the inventory without having to hunt through tray after tray of plants. Unfotunately, some of this data was missing as the chiles were organized for their places in the field, causing a bit of wasted time and extra work. I'm sure we will get it perfect next season.

Row after row is planted into the windy weather we are currently having. This is not great on the freshly transplanted chiles, but that is why you spend days in the greenhouse insuring strong and healthy plants with thick stems. Similar varieties are placed together for convenience of harvest or cultivation, whatever takes priority. Chiles and peppers always get a front row spot in the vicinity of the farm stand when possible for the enjoyment of all you who take the time to visit and tour the fields.

Similar to other transplanting methods throughout the farm, Kara and Lee follow Wayne in the tractor as they place the chiles in the soil by hand in the furrow the tractor has created as they progress down the row. Timing and spacing are the considerations that keep one focused during this task. This is not difficult if all goes smoothly, but occasionally big clods of dirt stop everyone or a few plants that are root bound to one another can disturb the operation.

The chile planting is currently in progress. It is best to do this work in waves so you don't break your back over too much transplanting. Also, running a business, getting to market, harvesting a specialty spring bounty, and going home and resting at the end of the day tend to interfere with getting hundreds of chiles all in the ground at once. This is an ideal time to come out and see the farm fields. I highly recommend a visit once again.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

In the Field: Planting Onions

Most of the onions that were planted yesterday in the field were seeded in February. The onion transplants were then dug out of their seed bed by Lee and Kara the evening prior to planting. After being transported to the farm fields, the onions need sorting and preparing for the actual planting. Only the largest and most likely to survive onion transplants were selected to go into the ground. The roots are trimmed when planting onions, sometimes the tops too. When working with hundreds of onion transplants, this task can become a full day's work. Kara diligently took on this task to assist the guys in the field at getting in as many onions as possible yesterday.

Meanwhile, I was lucky to get to assist in transplanting celery into the field that I'd started from seed weeks back and then planting a few rows of potatoes in the afternoon. The more help, the more you are able to do...

These onions will harvest in the late summer to fall and are intended to extend the onion supplies as late into fall and winter as possible. This is when varieties that are supposed to be "long keepers" are especially useful. Last fall Tierra Vegetables had the giant sweet yellow onions that many of you and us became quite dependent upon for our cooking needs. A few varieties have been planted in order to ensure diversity, an extended harvest, and just in case some onions store longer than others. Diversity is key to be sure you have what people might want and to have back-ups in case of crop failures. This is one of the keys to success for diversified small farming.
Pablo, Jose and Diego worked most of the day on this project. The field work in farming tends to stick you in one spot for a while as you toil to complete a single project or priority. Once started, the project really ought to get completed for various concerns such as the state of the transplants, watering considerations for the entire field, and everything else that must happen the next day. The hard work of these men contributes greatly to the well being of the farm. The place is beautiful right now, weeds are under control, plants look healthy and Tierra Vegetables seems to be off to a great start this season. The field manager, Pablo, has really whipped the place into shape since he returned this spring.

Kara's work space nestled between the irrigation lines and boxes full of onion transplants. This is a nice example of the satisfying, tedious and meditative work of farming.

Plenty more planting coming up this week! It is hard to catch up after losing an entire week to late spring rains.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Farming with the Phases of the Moon

Perhaps you have heard of a technique that involves scheduling your gardening activities around the moon phases. There is even a cool calendar available called Gardening By the Moon that offers some simple instruction for daily, weekly and monthly activities that ought to occur all season long in case this is a method of planting you would like to follow.

Some variables in this system include the New Moon, the Second and Third Quarter Moon, and the Full Moon. Then there are the astrological signs associated with these particular moon phases. Depending on how the chart works itself out, it may be a window of opportunity to plant leafy and flowering type plants, or maybe just root vegetables, or perhaps it is a poor time to plant at all only only a good time to cultivate and maintain what is already in the ground.

Tierra Vegetables optimally attempts to coordinate their planting and seeding schedules along with the moon phases. As farmers are used to adjusting their activities and lives around the environment in general it seems this schedule might not be too tough to follow. Things happen though and often priorities arise that conflict with the moon phases suggestions for optimal planting times. This is what happened last week.

It was prime time to plant the root veggies recently. But what about all that saturated soil from the late rains? One cannot move in and start trying to plant tiny seeds in muddy soil, even if it is the perfect moment in May with temperatures ideal for germination....the soil must dry out first.

We did get in the roots just in time yesterday. Carrots, beets, bunching onions, shallots, parsnips, and parsley root (I'm looking forward to this one) are all in the ground now and hopefully with all the proper conditions for optimal growth including soil and moon phase considerations.

Much more planting is on it's way...this is a great time to come out and walk the farm when the farm stand is open to see the start of the season come together. Harvest season is one thing, but early spring and summer are quite beautiful with all of the green growth there is to see.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Beauty of Spring at the Farm Stand

If you have neglected to stop in at the farm stand this spring, I must take a moment to remind you that you are missing some beautiful seasonal sights, smells and flavors. Admittedly, I have a thing for sweet peas and will plant them continuously throughout my surroundings all spring in hopes of some successful blossoms. I was delighted by the success of some seeds Lee had sown in the past that volunteered some early and fragrant blossoms along the fence line of the farm at the parking area. You really cannot miss them.

Additionally, a perfect harvest of rhubarb is now here and along with the initial harvest of strawberries it is a good time to make some seasonal spring treats with the two fresh ingredients. These are just some ideas to consider when thinking of what to do locally and seasonally with your food choices. Fava beans, asparagus, strawberries if you are early and lucky, sweet peas, lettuces, chard, mild mustard greens...the list goes on and you ought to already know if you receive Evie's emails each week.

Happy Spring, we are moving into summer pretty quick now!

Friday, May 8, 2009

In the Kitchen: Making Jam

Chile jams are produced in a variety of flavors. If you are a Ferry Plaza Market customer you must know this well as you pass by the tasting table each time you enter the Tierra Vegetable tent in San Francisco. At the Farm Stand on Airport Boulevard jam sampling is also made available, usually a flavor or two at a time. There are so many to try!

*Farm Blend a medium spice with a mix of green and red chiles
*Verde a blend of Poblano, green Jalapeno and green New Mexico chiles
*Rojo hot red Jalapenos that have been tempered by sweet red Pimientos
*Chipotle the smokey version of the above described Farm Blend
*Panonia this jam is a milder spice and made from Hungarian chiles, hence the name, Panonia is what the Romans all the Danube River Valley, the origin of the featured chiles in this jam
*Chinense (NOT Chinese-Chinense is the species name for the hottest kinds of chiles like the Habanero) Three separate batches of Chinense jams were made last fall to include Aji chiles, Jamaican Habaneros, or Paper Lanterns. This is the hottest choice in the jam selection.
*Mystery you have to guess, of course
*Strawberry Rhubarb and Strawberry Chipotle are available at times, ask if this sounds like what you want and you don't see it.

Here are a few steps in the jam-making process so you might understand all of the work that goes into this special sweet and spicy all purpose and unique condiment....

First, the chiles are grown, planted, cultivated, harvested....and if this does not seem like enough work in itself it goes on from here....

Eventually, they are brought to the Tierra Vegetable commercial kitchen for processing that includes washing, preliminary chopping (sometimes a very spicy job!), then chopping into smaller pieces in the super sized food processer that I learned to become comfortable with last fall and even honed my technique to become as efficient as possible in my chile processing...

After the processing has been completed, ingredients and supplies are gathered for making a batch of jam! This includes items such as pectin and sugars (necessary jam ingredients), jars and lids (an expensive investment, but it must be packaged and preserved), labels are made, and shelf space provided.

Above is a large brew of Rojo jam cooking away. This scale of jam-making must be watched very closely, we'd hate to over cook and burn such quantities of our hard work.

Not only does Lee grow you incredible fresh chiles (and just about everything else), but she personally presides over these projects in the kitchen to bring even more to the off-season and diversity that is offered by the farm. What a large pot, huh?! Imagine cleaning up after this project.

And finally, the bottling process being performed by Wayne and Evie in the above image. This is actually even better with at least three people involved to keep all aspects of this job moving. As the jars at bottle, sterilized and heated lids are placed and hot jars full of jam are scooted aside quickly to keep up with the bottler. This is a good job to do with a focused team.

So there you have it. Many phases of work and many people are involved in bring the jam to fruition. It is really something you will find no place else with the diversity of chiles and flavors involved. I have seen customers come from across the nation to acquire these products at the Ferry Plaza market. Next time you pass the sampling table, grab a taste, but try not to drip!

These are the three chiles found in the Chinense Jam. Aji in on the right, Jamaican Habanero on the upper left and Paper Lantern is the red/pink one in the middle and lower left. If you hear the folks next to you at the sampling table calling the Chinense Jam Chinese, feel free to correct them for us. We have had plenty of opportunities to clarify on our own.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Record Keeping

It is ideal in farming if you are able to find the time to keep records for all you do. Seeding, transplanting, harvesting, cover cropping. The more information you have about past activity, the more informed a decision can be made for the following season. Additionally, the more informed you are when you head to the field with your hundreds of transplants, ready to go in that moment, the better decisions can be made about where they ought to go.

Not only do Wayne and Lee work hard to track what is planted where in the field throughout the season, but also the first and last harvest dates of these items, equipment used to plant, pots used to grow, dates when relevant activities occurred, etc... The more info the better. The only trouble is that this farm is so diversified it is sometimes like searching for a needle in a haystack to find a particular tomato or chile variety within the large data base of vegetable varieties that have been planted throughout the years at Tierra Vegetables. Proof again that you have here a wonderful diversified small farm.

Above is one of many spread sheets that have been used this season to navigate the field for planting decisions. After each phase of field data is collected, time is made to incorporate this information into the extensive data base system Wayne has created. I find this work to be especially interesting as someone who appreciates record-keeping and it's benefits. It is really satisfying to see the results as different data reports are produced in order to proceed with the next phase of work.

The only problem with this system in the past is finding time....about this time in the year a farmer gets far too busy to keep up with such things. This is where someone like myself comes in handy.