Tuesday, August 30, 2011

After the Hurricane

Hurricane Irene didn't hit us too hard, but she still managed to do some damage.

The morning after
Toppled Corn - I just staked these up and they were good as new. 
Tomato Trellises

We woke up yesterday morning dreading the task of rebuilding our tomato trellises (I think we're going to go about supporting our tomatoes a little differently next year, but that's a topic for another blog post). I envisioned spending the entire day cutting strings, dismantling broken pieces of wood and ripping out dead tomato plants. However, perhaps because our trellises are so delightfully wimpy, they all just fell over instead of breaking, and so did the tomato plants. All we had to do was stand them up and bang in metal U-posts to support the uprights. We were also lucky enough to have TONS of help. My dad was there, my friend Geeta (who's been helping us out a couple days a week) showed up with her boyfriend, Sam, our other dedicated volunteer, Fan, also arrived to help, and my cousin Blake was in town. With so many hands, the tomato trellises were raised in no time, and by 10 AM we were looking around for things to do!

Blake and Sam banging in some U-posts

An Old-Fashioned Trellis Raising

Waiting for U-Posts (and eating sungold tomatoes)

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Chicken Processing Day Meets Hurricane Irene

The last two days have been pretty exciting. Yesterday we processed our 75 meat chickens, which would have been a daunting enough job without the threat of Irene baring down on us.

Friday, Mom and I harvested as many tomatoes from the garden as we could in anticipation of the storm and sorted them out to store in the garage. We also rushed to stake down and secure the garden. Meanwhile, Dave set up everything necessary for processing day. Our last processing day went pretty well (see here for details), but it took about 16 hours and there were clearly improvements to be made. Also, this time we were processing 75 birds instead of 36. We wanted to make sure that we were completely prepared for so many birds and so we made sure that everything was in order before we went to sleep Friday night. Very thankfully, our bravest friend Marka Kiley came out of Boston to help us for the weekend. Saturday, we all woke up extra early and Dave and I went out in the dark to catch the chickens. We got off to a good start, started the processing at about 6:30 AM and were done by 1 PM. Thanks to Marka's help, as well as several others, we were able to quality control and package the birds as we went, so the second half of the day went quickly and we were completely cleaned up by 5. Mother nature helped us clean by providing some drenching afternoon rains. It was a long day, but satisfying. Processing chickens is never fun, but we did the best job we could. We made sure that the chickens went to their deaths with minimum discomfort and that their meat was treated with the respect it deserves. All of Dave's work planning and preparing really paid off.

Meanwhile, Dave's mom Tammy had four pots of our tomatoes bubbling on the stove all day and into the night, working hard to can, freeze and otherwise preserve as much of our crop as possible. Between her hard work, and my mom's efforts to secure us some big restaurant sales, it looks like none of our tomatoes are going to go to waste.

This morning we got 4 inches of rain, but luckily, the hurricane was tamer than we had feared it would be and, other than a few blown down tomato trellises and (possibly) the loss of our corn crop, it looks like the garden is going to be okay. The chickens are safely in the refrigerator and freezer (we didn't even lose power!) and we can relax - and blog.

Our tomato bounty and Mom's new vespa

Sorting cherry tomatoes
Before (tune in tomorrow for After pics)

Artsy Pic: to remember them by in case they were all blown over 

CHICKEN PROCESSING PICTURES (you've been warned...)

Kill Cones

Our bravest friend Marka
Lynda, another brave friend

Hurricane Irene

Friday, August 19, 2011

Hasso Explains Eco-ganic vs. Organic and More!

Hasso Ewing (lead grower at BBFg):

It is hard to believe it’s the middle of August and this is the first time I have contributed to
this blog! The garden is at it peak, the pigs are joyfully chomping on a new field of Sudan
grass, chickens are fattening up, while others continue to lay faithfully. The middle of the
summer, the point at which we are drawing the most from the earth by growing plants
and animals.

This piece of land we have come to farm has been very productive. Partly
because it abuts a wet meadow and because it’s aspect is southeast. It hadn’t been
farmed for more than 20 years and even then it was likely just animals, not vegetables.
It’s deep and organic in nature, lots of decomposing plant material, as opposed to
mineral (rocky or sandy) soils. It holds water like a sponge , consequently we haven’t
had to rely on irrigation, thus far.

Our proximity to the wetland brings in insects, dragonflies and butterflies. Our
tomato trellis may not have been strong enough to handle the weight of the many large
fruits, but the trellis did support the landing site for many fledgling barn swallow clutches
out on their first flight. Bluebirds, too, used the wooden posts to hunt for early spring

The electric fence that surrounds both the vegetable patches, the pigs and the meat
chickens protects our charges from animals that would also like a local source of fresh
organically grown food. Dave did his homework on the best fence plan for our site. Our
fences aren’t high (2 ½’) but they were baited with peanut butter. Apparently, most
animals like peanut butter and will go for the PB before they jump in for the animals or
vege. But when they lick the PB on the foil, hanging over the electric fence, they get a
shocking response! Happens once, they don’t come near again and what’s more, they
tell their family and friends. So, we have been lucky, again… thus far.

We have experimented with walkway management to lessen weed pressure and
increase soil fertility. Some rows are cardboard from the bike shop (nice big pieces) with
old hay from Concord DWP projects on top. We planted white clover in others and then
mowed when weeds were topping the clover. That gives clover the advantage and it
takes over. We brought in compost for seeding and transplanting in the rows from a local
farm and amendments (rock dust, mycorrhizal organisms and seaweed mixes) from
away. We decided to use some plastic as mulch in the rows, as much as I hated to. The
area closest to the wetland would have been weed hell if it were not for black plastic
mulch. That’s under the tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and squash. They love the extra
heat and moisture retention plastic offers. We also use row cover, which is spun plastic.
That protects our plants from pests without using pesticides.

We are growing our plants and animals organically and, if we choose, could get
organic certification pretty quickly, I imagine. Generally, you have to transition over a
period of 3 years to organic because the land has to be cleansed. But since this land
hasn’t been farmed for so long we could prove it’s clean enough.

Organic, natural, and eco-ganic would describe our farm. Organic, because we
don’t use any chemically (man-made) fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides and we follow
national organic standards, but are not ‘certified organic’.

There is ‘certified natural’ being used now in the US. It has been around for a
while in other countries but now some American farmers are using natural certification in
response to organic certification. Organic certification policies are very difficult for the

small farm to adhere to. They are lengthy, expensive and the record keeping
requirements are over the top. Natural certification has a $75 annual fee, has far less
unnecessary reporting and uses peer review to oversee standards. This review process
is a nice aspect because it is bringing local farmers together.

Then there is eco-ganic. Eco-ganic is defined by Potomac Vegetable Farm as a
process by which a farm maintains rich organic soils, full of beneficial microbes, to
provide the crops with sufficient nutrients and a healthy environment. The farm can’t use
any synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, they rotate crops, grow many different kinds of
crops, and use timely and appropriate practices to try to minimize insect and disease
damage. The idea is to manage the soil and cultivate the crops in ways that will allow
the land to continue to be productive now and into the future. I actually like this label the
best. It’s about the mind blowing interaction of so many parts (soils, insects and animals,
water, sun) coming together and undertaking a amazing cycle of growth, death,
decomposition and regrowth and, we as participants, help perpetuate that cycle into the

All three of us (Gallagher, Dave and myself) have been committed to maintaining
the healthiest environment for our products, whether they be plant or animal. We want to
eat responsibly grown food, food that is high in nutrients and free of damaging
chemicals. Black Brook Farm Growers may not have the organic stamp of approval from
big business, but we are bringing to market products that are as good or better for our
customers than what they buy from most other currently available food sources.

Now, in the full belly of August, we change much of our focus from planting to
harvesting and storing. Growth has peaked and days shorten. We will harvest the food
from our plants and animals and return to the earth that which we don’t use., helping to
replenish what we have taken.

And, if time allows (I am on vacation today), I will write again about our adventure
into farming on a small scale biodiverse farm in New England

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Second Field and Natural Roots Farm

The second field is looking GREAT! If you look closely you can see the pole beans climbing right up the corn stalks, and the squash is doing a great job of keeping weeds down. We've done very little to this field since planting it, the idea was to keep it low maintenance so we could focus on our more finicky vegetables in the first field, and I'm happy to say so far it looks like the plan is working. 

Beans crawling up corn stalks

Sunflowers in the foreground

Winter squash keeping down the weeds. We planted pumpkins, delicata squash, acorn squash and butternut squash.

We went to the NOFA (Northeastern Organic Farming Association) Conference last weekend at UMass Amherst. It was really fun and inspiring. I went to some workshops on growing mushrooms and farm financial management (thrilling), Dave learned about animal powered logging and forestry and building root cellars and we all got to visit a couple of larger organic farms. 

Our favorite was Natural Roots Farm in Conway, MA. They are totally horse-powered, which is great for environmental (grass as fuel) and aesthetic reasons (no tractor smells and sounds). We were also impressed by their intensive weed control program. It was by far the most weed-free farm we've seen so far. 

Look how clean!

Pesto and Squash Bread Recipes

Dave and I have been making recipe cards for our CSA members. I thought I'd share a couple here. 

Cooking at the Farmer's Market

Here are some pics of us at the Carlisle Farmer's Market a couple weeks ago that my sister Kate took of us. Gallagher cooked up breakfast burritos to order on a Coleman stove with kale, squash, egg, cheese, and salsa. They were a hit!

...oh yeah, and we had some veggies too.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Cooking Kale and Swiss Chard

I've been getting a lot of questions lately on how to cook kale and swiss chard. I'm just going to give a few quick suggestions for some super simple ways to cook these vegetables. These tips can also be used for any kind of leafy sautéing green, such as spinach or beet greens.

To prep kale or swiss chard for cooking, first you want to remove the tough stems (this isn't necessary for smaller, tenderer leafy greens such as spinach, or baby beet greens). Fold the leaf in half so that the rib is exposed and then cut it away with your knife or gently rip the leaves off the stem and rib. The stems are also delicious (particularly swiss chard and beet green stems) but I recommend that you chop them up separately into small pieces and steam or sauté them for a little while before adding the leaves. After the steam is removed, then chop the leaves into bite sized strips.

Winterbor Kale (curly leaf, tougher)
Red Russian Kale (flat leaf, more tender)

The easiest way to prepare kale is either by sautéing or steaming it. There are many different types of kale, ranging from very tender White and Red Russian Kale (my favorite type of kale and the kind we have been growing and selling all summer) to the tougher Winterbor Kale (which we'll have this Fall). With tender varieties a short sauté or steam will probably be sufficient to cook it through, but with tougher varieties you may want to sauté it for a little while to incorporate some flavors and then add some water and cover to steam until tender enough to eat.

Easy Sautéing Recipe for Kale

olive oil
salt and pepper
red pepper flakes*
lemon juice*


1. Wash kale well and prep for cooking by removing stems
2. Chop the leaves up
3. In a large pan sauté minced garlic with a Tbsp of olive oil until garlic is wilted (add some chopped up stems and/or onions if desired)
4. Add kale leaves and season with salt and pepper (Also good: crushed red pepper flakes and/or cumin)
5. Cook, stirring, until leaves are wilted and tender enough to eat
6. If cooking a tougher, curly leafed kale, add a little bit of liquid (water, vinegar and wine to name a few) and cover to steam until tender enough to eat.
7. Season to taste (maybe add a little squeeze of lemon juice) and enjoy!

Other Simple Kale and Swiss Chard Recipes:
Baked Kale Chips
Sautéed Swiss Chard with Parmesan cheese
Swiss Chard with Garbanzo Beans and Tomatoes

Kale and swiss chard are two of my favorite vegetables, they are delicious, nutritious and easy to cook.

If you have any tips or favorite kale recipes please share them in the comment section. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

First CSA Pick-Up and Some Summertime Thoughts

It's August! 

These last couple of weeks have been so fun! Watching the plants we've been laboring over since early Spring finally begin to ripen into beautiful red tomatoes, yellow peppers and purple eggplants, or curl up into little cabbage heads, or lengthen into zucchinis, has been incredibly satisfying. 

Our first CSA pick-up is tomorrow. Yesterday we cleaned up our work area to create a nice space for our members to come get their shares and today we will begin to collect vegetables. And we have much to offer!
      The farm share this week will have:

      Mixed lettuce greens
      Eggplant (large share only)
      Red and White Russian Kale
      Cherry tomatoes
      Baby summer squash
      Fresh basil
      Super red cabbage

Inside a sunburst patty pan squash plant

Sungold cherry tomatoes 

Our basil patch

With August has also arrived a host of new considerations and problems to solve. These last couple of weeks I have started seeding the fall crops: storage cabbages, hearty winterbor kale, onions, lots of beets, asian greens and lettuces. Despite our irrigation system, we were having a hard time getting enough water on our seeds in the field, so I seeded a lot of our new crops in flats. Soon we'll have a bunch of transplanting to do. 

Our lettuces have been bolting quickly in the heat, and some of the heads have become so bitter I've had a hard time even getting the chickens to eat them! It's maddening to see crops get wasted in the field due to poor planning and timing. Next year, I have vowed to been more diligent about planting succession crops consistently, and in smaller batches. I'm pretty sure a lot of my February and March 2012 will be spent designing spreadsheets. 

Our personal lists of equipment we want for next season grow steadily longer, and a seeder is definitely at the top of mine. There's a lot to be said for doing things by hand, experiences like kneeling among the beds placing beet seeds one by one in rows has forced me to really understand and appreciate every part of the growing process. I can, for example, immediately identify a beet seed vs a kale seed vs a lettuce seed (frustratingly tiny!). At the same time, if small scale organic gardeners had any time to write songs, I'm pretty sure most of them would be odes to well designed tools. 

We also are thinking about constructing a hoop house this fall, to help us extend our season and give us more space to start seedlings. This decision in turn begets new decisions: How should we build it? Where should we build it? How big should it be? Where to get the money? We've been considering different grant and fund-raising options but each comes with it's own set of problems (and paperwork). 

Our egg production has slowly been dwindling, as many of our layer hens grow too old to produce consistently. Tomorrow morning we are planning on culling our flock, aka killing the hens that are no longer producing enough to justify feeding them. Instead, they will feed us now (everything feeds something around here). As our old flock decreases, however, our thoughts turn to next year. Laying hens can take between 4 to 6 months to start producing eggs, and we want to make sure that we have lots of eggs for the beginning of next season in order to supply the increasing demand. We need to figure out how many we should get, and where we are going to raise them and keep them over the winter. The hoop house would also be a good place to keep chickens after it gets to cold outside to house them in tractors. 

So as our hands do Summer's work, thinning, seeding, weeding and harvesting, our minds are two or three or five months in the future, building hoop houses and designing succession planting spreadsheets.

Popping a warm just-picked sungold cherry tomato into my mouth, however, there's no denying it's definitely August. And we're doing our best to enjoy every minute of it.

Black Brook Farm Growers lunch