CSA Spring Week2B Newsletter

For years Erin has challenged me to try no-till farming, at least as an experiment on a couple of our fields. This year, after meeting an intense, passionate farmer from Arkansas named Patrice Gros, I decided to give it a try.

The Frenchman’s detailed sharing of his 10-year experiment provided the recipe, which requires four main ingredients, two of which were available on the farm this year — massive amounts of leaves and wood chips, and a five-species cover crop I planted in the fall.

The one ingredient that makes it unsustainable right now was having to purchase compost. Lots of compost. The initial bed-making requires literally tons of organic matter and the combination of leaves, compost and mulch are the secret to keeping weeds down while also building up the critical microbial habitat that can break down all that organic matter you heap onto these raised beds.

The fourth — and most critical — ingredient is lots of hands. As in hard labor. There is no way to skimp on this requirement — making the beds, weeding, and then pulling back all the decayed vegetative material to the shoulders when you get ready to plant the next season.  

Fortunately we have had lots of volunteer help this season. I won’t even try to estimate the number of wheel barrels that were filled and emptied for just one-quarter acre.

Another incentive for going no till this year was the fact that our old Shubaru tractor had stopped running; it, too, was tired of tilling up the ground each year.

Farming no-till organically on larger plots requires special equipment and ideal conditions. But for small plots on farms that have lots of volunteer hands, this style of no-till seems is about as sustainable as it comes. But it also requires a long-term commitment. Gros has been doing no-till for 10 years now and only recently has he felt like he has created the perfect system. His organic matter during that time has increased from 1 percent to more than 8%, which is about three time what we have in our fields right now.

Last week’s pac choy is the first crop to come from these no-till beds. The mediocre results were not unexpected. The leaves and cover crop underneath the thick layer of compost did not have enough time to break down and allow the roots to penetrate into the soil below.  The plants were fairly stunted and it didn’t help that our record warm spring forced the plants to bolt several weeks early. Next season will undoubtably be more fruitful.

Like a kitchen table after a hastily prepared meal, these fields are messy, with cover crop still growing in the crooked isles and uneven rows that were laid down without the benefit of string. And as with any undercooked meal, the farmer is still chewing on what he has wrought and whether this last-minute experiment is going to take off and become the apple of his eye.

Either way, the farmer feels good that he is pushing the envelope and wishes he had listened to his wife a long time ago.

-Farmer Skip

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Swiss Chard & Lemon Ricotta Pasta

Swiss Chard and Lemon Ricotta Pasta

Serves 4

  • cups raw Swiss chard, sliced (including the stems)
  • handfuls dried spaghetti
  • strips bacon, cut into 1/4-inch slices or lardons
  • 1/2 large shallot, minced
  • Olive oil, as needed
  • 1/3 cup ricotta cheese
  • tablespoons Parmesan cheese
  • Zest from 1/2 lemon
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt, to taste
  • pinch dried red pepper flakes
  1. Bring a pot of well-salted water to a boil over high heat. Blanch the Swiss chard for 5 minutes. Scoop out the chard, and drain well, squeezing out as much of the water as possible. Chop again and set aside.
  2. Keep the pot of water boiling, and add the spaghetti noodles. Follow the directions on the packet for making the spaghetti. Drain and set aside, retaining about 1 cup of liquid from cooking the noodles.
  3. Fry bacon until just crispy. Add the shallot and saute until soft, adding olive oil if needed.
  4. Add the Swiss chard and toss well to break up the chard clumps.
  5. Combine the ricotta and Parmesan cheeses in a small bowl, and add the lemon zest, salt, and red pepper flakes. Add to the Swiss chard mixture in the saute pan and mix well.
  6. Add cooked spaghetti, and some of the pasta water as needed.
  7. Serve warm.

CSA Spring Week1A Newsletter

Welcome to the first week of the Spring/Summer CSA season. And what a great start to your culinary commitment to local organic food and small family farms. Warm weather. Nice rains. And hard-working farmers. Those are key ingredients to a bountiful harvest
and this week is a taste of delicious things to come.

I was going to delete the “Spring” part but I’m still hoping that this summer-like weather is not here for good. Last night’s storm dumped more than two inches to our river farm; the front also dropped temperatures by 10 degrees, but we are expecting highs in the 80s for the rest of the week. 

Spring. Ephemeral Spring. Where art thou?

As you may already know, Austin recorded its warmest meteorological winter (December, January, February). March will surely follow suit.  Who would guess that one of the most severe freezes we’ve had in years also arrived this winter and cut our winter season short. (Thank you, winter share members for hanging with us and returning this season!)

The good news is that we have seen an explosion in growth for the past month. Our tomato plants in the hoop house are already fruiting and we planted them only a month ago!  Cucumbers are flowering! And summer squash is only a few weeks away!

The downside to this unseasonable warmth is that the lettuce in this week’s share is on the verge of going bitter while the pac choy has started bolting. These are problems a farmer would anticipate in late April and plan/plant accordingly. Today, with climate change upon us, “accordingly” is begging for a new and revised Farmers Almanac.

Next week you can anticipate some beautiful romaine lettuce, green garlic, purple mustard greens, radishes, chard, and more. I’ll also share the results of our new venture into no-till farming and why new farming techniques are critical for a more sustainable agriculture.

-Farmer Skip

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So Much to Celebrate!

skipconnett

Ten years ago, we celebrated Farmer Skip’s 50th as we moved into the now 114-year-old Bergstrom farmhouse. The house was empty yet we were filled with anticipation.

Because when I had asked how Skip he wanted to celebrate his mid-life birthday, he said, “I want to raise my own pig on my farm and invite all my friends to celebrate.”

This request came from a man who wore a tie to work, wrote speeches at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and hadn’t lived on a farm in nearly forty years. While some friends suspected a mid-life crisis, I knew that this yearning was not new. The man I married would not feel complete without realizing his dream to farm, so we set the wheels in motion.

Ten years ago, there were no friends. I had been away from Austin for many years so it was my family that gathered to cut his birthday cake. Ten years ago, there was no pig and Green Gate Farms was nothing more than a rototiller and a crazy dream.

Today Skip is 60. And on Saturday we will celebrate him and the countless friends who helped create a community farm through generosity and passion. There will be a pig roast thanks to chef Tony Grasso. And there will be good news.

A year of negotiations between Green Gate Farms, Roberts Resorts — the farm property’s new owner — and the City of Austin bore fruit last week.

TBG Partners, hired by our landlord, devised a plan that will incorporate our four-acre farm into Roberts’ larger development of tiny homes, RVs and manufactured homes. This plan includes Green Gate Farms and the historic 1902 Swedish buildings – barn, farmhouse and cottages.  The drawings will be unveiled at Saturday’s Potluck Party (4-10pm).

In addition, our long-awaited desire to extend our Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program to SNAP (a.k.a. food stamp) users has been realized thanks to the Sustainable Food Center. Did you know that 25% of Austinites qualify for SNAP? Now, these vouchers can be redeemed and doubled at our farm stand because of funding from the Double Dollar program. Be sure to tell your favorite musician, artist, teacher, military vet, Americorps worker and other SNAP users that we are hosting a sign-up party and free farm tour on June 11, 11-2 that will ensure their food budget goes twice as far.

As we look forward to another decade of feeding and growing community, a beloved CSA member has arranged for her Aztec dance troop to bless the farm.  Following this, we will gather for a Barn Hug. All hands are needed to encircle the Big Red Barnthat has provided so much fun, shelter, and service. (Anyone have a drone that can photograph this event?).

So spread the word. It’s time for new beginnings – birthdays, graduations and a hopeful
future.

Bring a friend, bring an instrument, bring a dish to share. Let’s celebrate!

Farmer Erin

Rest in Peace Buddy

Party dog

His death seemed likely often yet I was stunned when it came.

There was the time he ate Avery’s pin cushion, a stuffed frog full of straight pins. We gave him a matter of hours before his gut was shredded. Instead, he nonchalantly threw up broken, half digested pins then returned to his sprawl on the floor, engaging in his favorite pastime: lunging at flies.

There was the first time he was hit by a car. His whimpering on the porch late one night was our only clue that he had been injured. Then there was the second time he was hit by a car…

Buddy was not promising from the beginning. One fine spring morning in 2008, an animal control officer called me from a rural vet’s office. Word was I wanted to adopt a Newfoundland. I had been on a secret quest for a lifeguard for our small children who swam in the Colorado at our River Farm. My plan was to surprise them with a fluffy puppy; however, what was on offer was a skeletal, abused black mop they estimated to be about two years old.

“We rescued him from an animal hoarder who stopped feeding him,” said the officer as he struggled to stand. Apart from his enormous head and floppy mouth, this mutt was not what I had in mind. But, he was the Keith Richards of dogs – mangy, beat up, and somehow irresistible. Needless to say, everyone was surprised when I brought him home.

What no one could anticipate was how after a few months of heaping bowls of giant dog food and love, he’d blossom into the largest lap dog you’d ever seen. As Skip says, he became our Clifford. True, he was a drooling, dirt encrusted, 145-pound black mutt that could incite terror by his mere presence, but if that’s all you saw, you missed the point entirely. He was all lover. He never wasted time with balls or jumping for Frisbees. He lived to smear slobber across your thighs in his persistent, clumsy attempts to nuzzle. His favorite place was in your arms, preferably in the middle of the massaging flow of the Colorado River.

Lucky for him, our community farm is full of visitors, campers and tubs of water. We created a “Grooming Basket” loaded with brushes and combs to not only assure children that he was gentle, but to coopt them into grooming, which required a battalion of helpers. We encouraged the kids to brush and release, brush and release. Over the years, several birds nests were found lined with his fluffy clumps.

Bud loved all farm guests. He took any quilt on the ground as an invitation to flop down in the middle, crush toys, knock over picnics, insist on love and drool on squealing vistors.

Though he was rarely the brightest bulb in the pack (why did he occasionally mark customers? Why did he repeatedly get sprayed in the face by skunks?), Bud taught me about discrimination and presumption as he unnerved canine and human alike.

“Does he bite?” the Hispanic teenagers would shout from across the street when I took him lumbering through our neighborhood.  When we passed by the RV park next to our home, a chorus of RV-sized mini canines rang out in a frenzy of barking as he made his rounds. Chihuahuas were the worst, teeth bared, straining to get him. Bud stared down at them dumbfounded and moved on. He was a lover, not a fighter.

During a recent post-vet appointment meander down South Congress, a woman across the street shrieked. Bud and I looked around wondering what was the emergency. But she was yelling at us – “Is that a bear? I thought that was a bear. WHAT IS THAT?”

Even his canine partner, Boonie, a white Italian sheepdog (our first rescue dog), felt compelled to assert his dominance daily by humping Buddy’s face. As Boonie focused on thrusting, Buddy lay sprawled on our dusty dirt driveway, head between two huge paws not even flinching. You could almost see Bud’s little brown eyes roll in his head as he said to himself, “OK, little man, get it over with it.” Though visitors were appalled, we came to find comfort in the ritual “Face Hump,” which was as predictable as roosters crowing and people staring.

What folks (and Boonie) failed to understand, is that Buddy was really a big baby, who could by turns be embarrassed and silly.

Like when we had him shaved to the skin to alleviate his hot spots. The groomer had transformed his lionlike mane into an effette poodle leaving only fluffy ears and a pouf at the end of his tail. He was mortified. He raced into the house and hid for several days.

Or the time Skip bagged a deer and was looking forward to presenting this hard-won roast to the family. The meat was perfect, glistening and cooling on the kitchen island. Skip stepped out, forgetting that Bud’s mouth was table level. When the meat went missing we looked everywhere. In the garden, in the driveway where he took his dirt bathes. But, no, he had shoved it under Ethan’s bed, certain it would never be found.

He loved Ethan’s bed. That’s where he hid his treasures – purloined dinners, rotting carcasses excavated from the compost pile, gnawed crayons…Thunderstorms and firecrackers sent him racing into Ethan’s bedroom as he tried to shove himself under the twin bed. When that didn’t work, he thought nothing of catapulting his dripping, filthy self onto the mattress and under the sheets.

I loved our Bud, dirt and all. How I wish he were here to trek in more. Instead, he took an evening amble this week that ended badly. We guess he must’ve gone down to the river to cool off and a snake got him in the check. He died in our arms gasping as venom swelled his head and shut his throat. He deserved a better end, but given his proclivity for mishap and unprovoked aggression, perhaps not surprising. Our sweet Bud is gone and he has left a giant size hole in our hearts.

Christmas on the farm