Meditation on Abelmoschus esculentus
The first okra harvest is always the hardest. The plants are short and your back is bent and the row is long. And it’s hot, of course.
This is the only time you wear gloves picking vegetables; the pair you found on the shelf are shriveled and hard, like dried banana peels. You rarely use clippers either and they feel like a blunt, slightly menacing instrument in your hand after holding a pen all morning.
Because organic okra seed is so expensive, you entice young kids to shell the dried up pods each fall. They enjoy it and now you have bags and bags of purple BB-like seeds. In the green magic of early spring you got a little carried away and planted six rows, each 250 feet long. Everyone survived infancy.
As you stare at this hardy regiment of floral soldiers waiting for your attention, you have to ask: What was I thinking?” The yellow hibiscus flowers that teased your eyes with their beauty have transformed into elusive “lady fingers” hiding under their big floppy leaves. Making matters worse, these adolescent plants seem to be leaning away as you loom over them, resisting as you pull their stems toward you. Their canopy is too big for their body, just like the hair on your 15-year-old’s head — unruly and thick — and you recall how he too pulls away when you reach out to touch it or threaten to take him to the barber.
In this earliest stage of fruiting, the okra is still trying to get it right. Their colors are off, too pale or mottled. So are their shape — oddly twisted or deformed. Some look like bullets instead of arrowheads, as if still experimenting, not sure who they are, and here again your son comes to mind.
Like with any first cutting, you’ve lost feeling for the mechanics and rhythm of flesh working with metal. Several long passes are needed before you start cutting confidently, without seeing, like a puppeteer’s hands working in tandem under the table. After a nine-month hiatus, your guiding hand and your cutting hand are finally working together like dancers amid stems and weeds and bugs in your face.
If there is one good thing about adolescent okra it is this: it’s leave are only mildly irritating at this stage. The fierce itch that comes later as its toxins mature in ever darkening reds and greens is now just a reminder of the misery to come. These teens will soon grow independent and proud for having survived all manner of assaults and won’t let go of their possessions without a sore fight.
In truth, the farmer and the okra plant need each other. Yours is a silent give-and-take relationship that deepens as the summer grows hotter and you both grow tougher. Your cut-and-come-again tactic forces it to keep producing until eventually it grows beyond your reach or gives out just about the time you do too.
Either way, it’s going to be a long summer. You’ll get sick of each other by mid July and need a vacation. But today, you are still enjoying an almost parental pride of having coaxed and cultivated these young plants into productive citizens of the farm. Today the harvest is too small for so much effort but now summer has officially begun and these sun-loving, heat-seeking plants will stand by you and faithfully deliver.
Thanks to the warmest winter in Austin, we’ve had a solid 12 weeks of abundant harvests. The farm has the look and feel of the end of June rather than the beginning. Flowers have turned to seed. Grasses have started to turn brown and bend down with heavy heads. Everything is peaking and summer hasn’t even started.
And now come the bugs. The down side of a mild winter is now writ large over our beautiful plants. Back in February, when we had some highs in the 90s, harlequin bugs ravaged our greens. Now it’s the leaf-footed bugs and they are destroying our tomatoes and more.
Other farmers have commented on this year’s infestation being the worst in recent memory. In a matter of days, these flat-footed soldiers have marched down rows of trellised plants and speared each and every tomato — a slow death that is hard to watch and which explains why you will be having so many green tomatoes in the shares.
One of the few summer crops that seems impervious to both bug and disease is okra. You’ll start getting it in next week’s share, along with green beans and peppers.
We are having all kinds of company in the fields, including this rat snake that refused to leave the squash row and held its ground as I approached.
This weekend’s storms were all bark and little bite out here in Bastrop. Made for impressive clouds.
One of my favorite jobs at the city farm is taking students on an impromptu tour and testing them on their knowledge of flora and fauna. We stopped here on a grandfather post oak that serves as a resting place for goats — and kids.
THE CROP THAT COVERS IT ALL
by Farmer Skip
If I had to choose one essential element of organic farming it would be cover crops. Nature abhors bare ground yet drive through a countryside of conventional farming in winter and what you’ll see is a landscape stripped of its protective cover.
With the right timing and nature’s cooperation, a cover crop becomes a farm’s best friend. Those vine-like legumes — winter peas, iron and clay peas, hairy vetch — put nitrogen into the soil instead of the farmer hauling it in from a chicken farm or compost company or spraying a store-bought mix. Cereal crops like Elbon rye help suppress weeds and damaging nematodes*. Root crops like turnips and daikon radish aerate compacted soil, pulling up minerals for your vegetables.
Those are just some of the biological reasons for cover cropping. Other benefits include erosion control, increased water retention, feeding pollinators, and, perhaps most importantly, a bounty of organic matter that feeds microbes in the soil.
Recently, Green Gate completed a three-year contract with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to grow cover crops on our farm. NRCS has become the leading USDA agency to encourage farmers to transition to organic practices. With their assistance, we improved our cover cropping — increasing the number of species from two to five and growing this in summer and winter. NRCS introduced us to Sun Hemp. A distant cousin of marijuana —without the THC — this plant loves hot sun, is drought tolerant, and its 8-foot stalk sends up huge yellow blossoms in late summer that Farmer Erin featured in her flower bouquets.
Now that Green Gate is back on its own as far as what we choose for cover cropping, I wanted to continue the experiments. I was visiting Sharon Crow, owner of Guinea Hill Farm in Elgin, when she showed me her pride and joy. Not her flock of guinea hens. Not her tomatoes or potatoes. No, a field of hubam clover, elbow rye and peas gone to seed. I was as impressed as I was horrified. No farmer lets cover crop go to seed. You not only lose nitrogen to seed production but those seeds will be “weeds” when you plant vegetables the next season.
Sharon explained that our farmer friend Wayne Lundgren inspired her to do something that many organic farmers are reluctant to do — let a field go fallow for two years. Land needs a rest yet it rarely does. Indeed, 50 years ago, the USDA’s Soil Bank Program used to pay farmers, my father included, to keep their land fallow.
Experiencing this cover crop gone wild is even better than receiving a check. Three fields here are buzzing with bees and glittering with butterflies of every stripe. Sparrow and dove are nesting in its cool bowels. Who knew that clover not only smells sweet when it flowers but can grow seven-feet tall? Or that hairy vetch, with its lacy combs of purple flowers, should really be called hairy stretch as it spreads like a greedy prospector to claim its territory.
Best of all, these crops have smothered my nemesis — the invasive Johnson Grass that was imported to Texas a century ago.
This fall, instead of plowing up and planting vegetables I’ll mow this field and give it light disking. And then simply wait for nature to send the farm a deposit from its seed bank.
*Nematodes are microscopic worms that are often parasitic.
Last Saturday, Green Gate Farm hosted an education event for Holistic Management International, a leader in regenerative agriculture. More than 40 aspiring farmers and ranchers spent the day touring the city farm, learning HMI practices and tools, and hearing from three sustainable farming experts.
Those experts — Edwin Marty, Robert Maggiani, and Ronda Rutledge — were asked what was the single biggest challenge facing the local food movement. Their answers were: lack of mindful consumption, a food system that is culturally and ecologically unsound, and the inability of small family farmers to make a decent living.
We spent the afternoon using HMI decision-making tools to come up with solutions to those pressing problems. Overcoming the mindless consumption of unhealthy food gained traction as the first place to start. Yet what began as a simple and fairly obvious strategy soon grew complicated once we got down into the weeds of HMI’s list of considerations, such as root causes, logjams and unintended consequences.
Sitting in our Children’s Garden, feeling the unseasonable heat rise as the afternoon wore on, we all began to appreciate why consensus is so hard to reach on an issue as multifaceted and entrenched as Big Food. If the path to change can’t find traction at the political level, the only alternative is at the grassroots. But where to begin? Who will be our leader? How will we sustain the movement?
As if mirroring the competing demands and considerations we faced, our outdoor classroom was interrupted by a cacophony of voices — this time from the creatures with whom we share the farm: a vociferous mockingbird perched on a branch a few feet above our heads; a rooster on the perimeter who wouldn’t stop crowing; guinea hens racing around the barn; and two dogs digging in under the picnic tables to keep cool.
“Suddenly a lot of competition,” said Peggy Seachrist, HMI’s Program Manager, trying to turn our attention back to fixing the logjam that has kept local food consumption at only 1% in Central Texas.
Why was that mockingbird carrying on, boldly taking center stage as if its message were so critical it needed constant repeating. What was that rooster crowing about in the middle of the afternoon? And what were the dogs to make of these record-breaking temperatures that were making them pant in Spring?
That very moment, thousands of enlightened citizens were marching in cities around the country, protesting our president’s attack on climate change initiatives. The following day, meteorologists would note that the first four months of this year were the hottest on record for Austin.
HMI’s Open Gate On-Farm Learning Program was a success by all measures. Making both business and personal decisions based on the health of the soil and understanding how biological wealth relates to financial wealth is an important message for our times. Unless that message gets louder and bolder, until we start digging and taking a stand, the climate might end up making those decisions for us.
Some days in Spring are especially busy for the farm and today was one of them. Crazy busy.
There were melons to plant, tomatoes to trellis, slicing onions to dry. There were weeds to pull (nothing new about that.) And then, of course, the harvesting for this week’s share, which is a nice balance of the last of the winter crops and the first of the summer crops.
And then there were the kids. One hundred and two, to be exact. And I”m not talking baby goats. No, these were well-behaved, exuberant third graders from Elgin ISD who arrived at nine this morning for a field trip.
Erin is constantly hosting field trips at the city farm and most of them she can manage alone or with the help of Carolyn and one or two other farm educators. But today was different. Even before the dew had dried, three yellow buses pulled up to the barn and enough kids spilled out to encircle the entire barnyard several times.
Erin is our general and soon all seven of us foot soldiers for good food are at our stations, ready to spend the next two hours giving these kids a real farm experience. For the farmer, who so often spends hours alone in the field, it is exciting and exhausting at the same time — all these questions thrown at you, ones you haven’t thought about in years.
Some you can answer without thinking: what is organic, where does a potato come from, how old is Spot (our 800-pound boar)?
And then come the one’s that give you pause. What is that pink thing on the back of Spot? Why does the rabbit have red eyes. How do the goats make babies.? How do vegetables get their names? Do worms eat plastic?
Humor goes a long way on days like this. And sometimes the kids run with our games. Our daughter Alex was in charge of the chicken and rabbit station. Pointing at the round rabbit droppings beneath the cage, she explain that we don’t call it poop. “
“We call it bunny berries,” she explained.
“Oh,” asks one astute third grader. “Can we eat them?”
“Yeah,” another chimes in. “It looks like Coco Puffs.”
Ah, life on the farm. Never a dull moment.