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The Cyclone that wasn’t

As of right now, it looks like we’ll be just fine for our standard pick-up this week.  We, along with the rest of the Northwest were fired up about our first potential harvest in a bomb cyclone, but alas, we bunched carrots in underwhelming 20mph gusts and sideways rain. Catch ya next time, bc!  To prepare for the gusty guest that didn’t show, we, along with farmers throughout the PNW took the plastic off all our caterpillar tunnels, which was mighty adult of us, if I do say so myself. Normally, we wait until a windstorm decides to remove half of the plastic for us and then we go join in in a chaotic scene that is hazardous to human safety, but my, is it exhilarating!! We also pre-filled all our washtubs with water so we’d be ready to tidy up your share in a dark, powerless wash station, but that also didn’t need to happen. Lastly, we removed about 20 – 125 foot long sheets of row cover that were protecting our carrots from rust fly and our brassicas from root maggot. We once had a piece of row cover form its own ghostly tornado, take flight, and land in the top of an 80 year old Doug Fir. Not our finest hour. So yah, basically, I’m saying, we, like all of you, made some little preparations and we want a high five for it. Don’t leave us hanging!

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Fall Vibes

Fall vibes are cranked to 11.  A season’s worth of carbon and solar energy has culminated into a bunch of roundish, delicious things. They’ve been reaped, cleaned and stored for the next several months of photosynthetic downtime. The winter squash is picked and artfully stacked in the greenhouse for curing while the onions and garlic are boxed, labeled and oh so orderly stuffed under our garage ping pong table. Hundreds of pounds and over 80 varieties of seeds are almost completely harvested, threshed, screened, winnowed, dehydrated and tucked into 4 gallon buckets where they may live in our entryway for the next several weeks, and proper storage racks for the next several years, awaiting their shipment to another random plot of dirt in the U.S. Potatoes are being dug and stowed away in garbage bins with a bit of wood shavings. Out in the fields, the fall clover, rye, oats and vetch are coming up thick and green (almost looking like we know what we’re doing after so many years of patchy, mistimed cover crop seedings!). The sheep have moved off their summer veggie/cover crop paddocks onto a longer term winter pasture (our uncultivated back acre) so, as the daylight wanes, the fall cover crops can focus their precious energy toward growing leaves and not wool. Firewood is stacked, greenhouses are clearing out and the last of the hanging apples are quickly succumbing to yellowjackets and their ilk. Back inside, the meals are getting a bit less fruity and a bit more rooty as we revel in the season’s first rutabagas, winter radishes and parsnips. The barn is still a chaotic warzone. If it’s lucky, it may enjoy a few fleeting days of organization sometime in the dead of winter when nobody is around to appreciate it.

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Tomatoes (and bloggers) Gone Wild

Tomatoes (and newsletter writers) Gone Wild
You may have noticed that here at Deep Harvest
we are unequivocally pro-tomato. Eleven years into farming, we’re still experimenting with an obscene number of new varieties, ever searching for the best and the brightest (ie the most flavorful and highest yielding) solanaceous fruits possible this side of the Cascades. Why?  Because the people demand it!! Ok, not really. Simply because with think they’re fun, beautiful, delicious and generally beloved.  Am I right?  Tell me I’m right!  For some practical, but mostly whimsical reasons, this season we’ve sought varieties with traits we haven’t previously offered in our CSA or seed catalog.  For example, we trialed various apricot-sized fuzzy tomatoes (all too slow, not tasty enough), Cherokee Purple look-alikes hoping one was as delicious but not so crack prone (again, no dice), Big hand-sized heirlooms, because we think people love those (here there were winners, namely the big creamsicle colored Oma’s Orange and our favorite tomato named after a Russian Space traveler—Cosmonaut Volkov). We won’t bore you with the trials and tribulations of our 1oz determinant red tomato trial. You get it, we have an infatuation that at some point may need to be addressed. But for now… on to tomato care!

Tomatoes are far and away the gold medal winners in categories of neediest and riskiest crops. We seed these divas in early February on expensive heat mats in our start houses. Come March, they’re potted up into 4-inch pots (500 4-inch pots) and get watered early each day to avoid going into cool nights with wet leaves (they hate that!).  In May they’re deeply, carefully planted into greenhouses, tunnels or outdoors in black plastic with drip irrigation and trellised with t-posts and twine using the Florida weave (google that one!) or twisted up twine hanging from a special tomato trellising device called a tomahook.  We spare no expense to keep them feeling well supported! Once a week, May through mid-August the tomatoes get pruned. Our indeterminant (indefinite growing) tomatoes are snipped to two leaders— that is, we select two main growing stems and cut off all other suckers that appear in order to maximize airflow and minimize chance of disease. Our determinants and cherries just get pruned to make sure harvest is quick and easy and that good airflow is possible. And, and, and— my oh my yipes—I can talk, write and think about tomatoes forever. Please forgive me. My love is clearly vast and overwhelming and maybe oppressive. Sorry tomatoes. And sorry to those of you who are still reading this. Errr… ok….. tomatoes. We love em. They’re difficult. Time consuming.  Expensive to grow. But if they don’t get the ever-terrifying late blight, early blights or one of countless other tomato grower terrors, they’re terrific— tomatorrific??? Oof. Ick. Cutting myself off. Thanks for going on that journey with me. The end!


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August Daze

Mandatory August deep breaths. Will you join me? Breathe in…… breathe out…… Breathe in…… Breathe— AhhHHH never mind! No time! No time! Strap on the oxygen machine and go go go! Let’s see some hustle!  In preparation for .15 inches of theoretical rain, we got an early morning start to harvest 5,000 onions that could’ve rotted if wet, 225 ft. of cherry tomatoes that needed to be plucked for csa, and 500 feet of strawberries that don’t do well when damp (really, who does?).  That’s almost enough for a normal Monday right there, but onward ho we go!  We then employed gigantic silage tarps as rain jackets for beet and chard seed crops that are just ripe enough to be destroyed by rain, but not ready enough to harvest.  It’s a hefty job, but the details are a bore, so on we go through our Pinnacle Day for Productivity.  Nathaniel harvested lettuce and phacelia seed and threshed parsnip seed then headed off to another isolation plot with his bro to harvest plump umbels of mature carrot. Meanwhile Brian and I collected and processed millet, feverfew, scabiosa, and spinach seed to make room for new seed harvests to enter our seed drying caterpillar tunnel.  Our kind sister-in-law and work-traders shop-vac’d and swept up soon to be ripe nasturtium seeds from plants we grew in landscape fabric for easy seed collecting.  Brian sprayed coolers, lugs and pack shed tubs to get ready for Tuesday’s harvest and I shuffled irrigation lines around twice, knowing our predicted rain wouldn’t likely be enough for mature food crops.  How right I was… Now 8pm, Nathaniel and I sit on our bed with the door closed to muffle the noise of kids pretending to be kittens, while writing you this little note. He checks the weather. The rain passed us by.  Sigh… and breathe.

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It’s a Bird’s World

And…we’re home. We had a wonderful, whirlwind of a road trip to North Dakota and back. One of the perks for me (Nathaniel) was witnessing dozens of species of migratory birds not usually seen on Whidbey. The Montana and North Dakota grasslands, lakes and wetlands hosted thousands of ducks, shorebirds, song birds and raptors: Golden Eagles, nighhawks, rails, avocets, meadowlarks, buntings, bobolinks, and so many more.

Birds take up much of the conversational space here on the farm, as Brian and I (and increasingly Annie) are avid birders. We consider these winged friends an integral part of the farm community and ecosystem. We all love scoping the harriers, eagles and hawks soaring across the fields and identifying the many sparrows, wrens and finches that perch and sing in our crops. Last year we added a few bird boxes to our fence lines, which were immediately adopted by migratory tree swallows. (The kestrel box was unfortunately hijacked by the invasive starlings.) This year the Cedar Waxwings have begun foraging for berries in our maturing hedgerows and warblers have newly discovered our fruit trees.

But despite their endless majesty the birds often pose significant management issues on the farm. The biggest headache is caused by the finches (house finches and goldfinches) and their voracious appetite for our seed crops. If not preemptively excluded with massive 150′ x 50′ bird nets, finches will completely wipe out a bed of bok choi, borage, spinach or kale seed within a few days. Our grass-nesting savannah sparrows also create a mowing conundrum. While we’d prefer to mow in April or May to prevent the dandelion from setting seed, the sparrows don’t reliably fledge their young until mid-late June. Mowing any earlier can destroy their nests and eggs or outright kill their chicks which haven’t yet learned to fly. And finally, the killdeers. These rowdy plovers build their camouflage nests in our fallow spring fields, at the beginning of the busy tractor season. We spend hours scouting for nesting sites (which are often revealed by the screaming nearby parents who fake broken wings to lure us away from the nest) and marking them with bright flags before discing, mowing, or plowing a field. But despite the few annoyances, we thoroughly enjoy the diversity of bird species that forage, nest, sing, shelter or just fly over our fields. (FYI – we are strong advocates of Bird-Be-Safe collars for those of you with outdoor kitties. They have significantly cut down on Patty’s bird kills, AND they are supremely fashionable!)

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CSA Crop Planning 101

Ever wonder what it takes to design a CSA crop plan? How do we ensure that there are at least 8 crops each week for the farmshare, with a revolving diversity of items and without too much excess left in the field. How are we able to deliver your favorite crops like lettuce and carrots on lots of weeks but fennel and kohlrabi not so much? The answers is a mix of fancy Excel algorithms, years of fine tuning and innate genius (okay, probably not that). We start by designing our theoretical ideal crop plan: We put crops on the y axis, dates on the x axis and then mark which crops we want to give each week. This requires knowing how early crops can conceivably be grown and harvested, how many weeks in a row a specific crop needs to be harvested, and a general idea of what makes a happy CSA customer. It’s also necessary to know how many weeks a crop can hold in the field before bolting or getting pithy, fibrous or bitter. Then we work backwards from each harvest date for each crop, subtracting the Days to Maturity in order to generate a planting date. This involves knowing approximately how many days it takes to mature a radish planted on Mar 17, or a zucchini transplanted on May 20, which is specific to every growing region. At this point we have a long list of hundreds of planting dates for over 40 different vegetable crops which we call our….Planting Calendar.  Some crops like peppers only have one planting date while others like carrots or beets have six or seven different dates. (Since carrots only hold in the field 3 weeks we have to plant them every 3 weeks to have a constant supply). Some days we plant LOTS of crops and some days we plant none.
Okay, now that we have our timing figured out, let’s talk amounts or “bed feet.”  To know how many bed feet (number of linear feet in a 5ft wide bed) of carrots we need to plant for, say, 2 weeks of CSA, it’s important to have a rough guess on what carrots yield. These figures can be looked up online, but it’s better to gather your own farm-specific data over several years of harvests based on your own soils, climate, pests, diseases, etc.  At this point in our careers we know that broccoli yields about 1.3 heads per bed foot, and so we can be pretty certain that 77 bed feet will be enough for 100 CSA members. So, we then write 77 ft next to the corresponding broccoli date in our planting calendar. (This also assumes you already know the correct planting spacing with the bed, but that’s getting a little in the weeds).  We then always overplant about 15%, assuming there will be some crop loss from disease, insect damage, bolting, bad germination, or a million other reasons.
Okay that’s an extremely simplified run-down of crop planning, but hopefully it gives you an idea of the planning required for every crop, every week of the season.

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Storing Fall Vegetables

We like to kick off each Fall CSA season with a refresher on how to store your fall veggies. Apologies to our callused members who have received this info a dozen times already! For our new members, here are a few pro-tips for prioritizing your produce for consumption and storing items that don’t get consumed immediately. The great thing about Cool Season veggies is that they generally store in your fridge or on the counter much longer than wilt-prone summer salad greens or fruitfly-attracting tomatoes and cucumbers.

  • All items except onions, garlic, squash and potatoes are best stored in the fridge in plastic bags if not consumed within a day or so. Too much moisture in the plastic bag can lead to bacterial rot in both roots and greens, so make sure they’re not dripping wet as they go into the fridge.
  •  Not-so-hardy greens such as Spinach, Mustards, Salad mix, and Frisee are generally the most wilt-prone items in your share. They should last up to a week in the the fridge, but we’d still recommend consuming them relatively quickly after pick-up.
  • Hardier braising greens such as Kale, Chard, and Collards can generally last a bit longer before wilting. (Also, since these greens are generally cooked, it’s not as consequential if they get a bit wilty before consumption)
  •  Broccoli, cauliflower, kohlrabi, brussels and cabbage will all store a bit better than greens, but not quite as long as roots. Broccoli is the quickest to turn yellow and rot, while cabbage can last several week.
  • Roots such as carrots, beets, parsnips, rutabaga, leeks and winter radishes can last many weeks if stored properly in the fridge. Since moisture loss happens mostly through the leaves, we’d recommend removing the greens before refrigeration. Greens can be composted, or in the case of beets, saved as a separate item to be consumed like spinach (so tasty!).
  • Onions, garlic, winter squash are best stored on the counter or in any other non-refrigerated place out of the sun. Don’t feel compelled to eat these items right away. If kept dry, they might last you well beyond the year’s end and into winter.
  • Potatoes also prefer non-refridgerated storage, but like it a bit cooler and moister than room temperature. If you’re not going to eat your potatoes for several week after pick-up, you might consider storingthem in a paper bag or cardboard box in your garage, or any other cool, dark area. Otherwise, the counter is just fine for short term storage.
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The Chic Chicories   

 In case you didn’t know, chicories are all the rage. If you’re still in the dark, we forgive you, as the trend is still mostly limited to market farmers, food bloggers, hip chefs and… Italians. But that’s how all fringe greens get their starts, including kale and arugula back in the late aughts. A decade later, this motley crew of radicchio (Castelfrancos, Treviso, Chioggia, Verona, etc), sugarloaf, endive, escarole, and frisée, collectively known as chicories, are poised to eclipse the trendy greens of yore and make their mark on leafy history. And for good reason. Composed of three different species, the genus Chicorium boasts a wide diversity of cold-hardy, flavorful and aesthetically stunning greens that thrive in our cool, wet Northwest off-seasons. Their wide range of phytochemicals provide resistance to insect and fungal damage in the dank fall months compared to other greens. These secondary plant molecules also provide an endless array of bitter flavor profiles. Local Roots farm in Duvall, has made a name for themselves by trialing dozens of chicory varieties from the Seeds of Italy catalog, identifying the best for our area and producing loads of these greens for the Seattle restaurant market. Seattle has in turn caught chicory fever and even started their own Chicory Week and Chicory Fest, modeled after the regional food festivals of Italy. Yes, these farmers, breeders, chefs and foodies have carved out an entire week to celebrate glorified dandilions. Are you sold yet? Hopefully you enjoyed your frisee salad this past week and are ready to dive deeper. This week’s share you get a head of Variegata di Castlefranco, known in Italy as “Orchid Lettuce” and “Winter Rose”. Dig in.
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What’s up with Real Organic?

Many of you already know this, but to some of you this may come as a surprise, so brace yourselves for some news.  It might blow your mind…. You ready?? Ok… don’t say, I didn’t warn you… Here it comes —   the   Organic  label   is   imperfect.  Did I hear a gasp out there in the crowd? You, in the back, are you going to be ok?  We’ll check back in on you in a little bit.  So. Why do I speak such blasphemy? Well, my friends, let me tell you. Back in 1995, the National Organic Standards Board defined the term organic as “an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain, and enhance ecological harmony.” Sadly, in recent years, Big Ag has convinced the USDA to ignore the main element of what it means to be organic— the soil! Now input dependent hydroponic warehouses and confined animal operations are allowed under the label, leaving consumers in the dark regarding how and where their food was produced.  The organic label still prevents the use of synthetic herbicides and pesticides and encourages at least some amount of crop rotation, thus providing customers more confidence in what they’re buying than unlabeled goods can.  We still reach out for the organic products in the grocery when we can’t talk directly to the producer we’re buying from.  However, all this watering down of “organic” has resulted in some new movements in the farming world that bring us soil lovers new energy and hope. One is the recently formed Real Organic Label, through which we are proud to be certified.  It was started by organic farmers and advocates to push the National Organic Program back to its roots in the soil, but in the meantime serves to distinguish pasture-raised and soil-grown products from other organicgoods. It’s a small, but growing movement with a lot of sustainable ag thought leaders at its helm.  The other thrilling move in the sustainable farming universe is one towards “regenerative” ag practices, which like the Real Organic folks, aim to tend and care for soil.  The Regenerative Ag movement is working to address climate change by promoting farming practices that sink carbon back into the earth. These approaches include planting perennials, cover crops, limiting tillage, rotating animals, and increasing plant diversity. I’m sure Nathaniel will nerd out on all of this in greater detail in a future newsletter. For now, if you’re interested in learning more about regenerative ag, give the new, beautifully produced Netflix Documentary “Kiss the Ground” a gander. Woody Harrelson narrates through a compelling cast of real farm characters who aim to reverse climate change by restoring soil. It highlights a fellow named Gabe Brown who farms outside of my hometown of Bismarck, ND in such an innovative, soil-regenerating manner that he’s been named one of the 25 more influential ag leaders in the US (#NDpride!).  This flick was stellar enough to get my ND teacher sister back into composting and to text me repeatedly, “I’m so inspired.” Aww.  It’s worth 90 minutes of your time and the ideas it holds are worth all of us taking seriously. What are you waiting for? Get thee to Netflix! And then to your compost bin and beyond!
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A Patent on…Pinkness?

Dow, Syngenta, Bayer, DuPont, BASF….what do these company names connote to you? You probably know these companies as some the world’s largest producers of chemicals, from glyphosate to alka seltzer. These companies, along with a few others, own hundreds of other smaller companies and are responsible for the vast majority of chemicals produced on the planet, chemicals that define how we grow food, manage our health, and run our industries. But did you know these companies also pose one of the greatest risks to biodiversity currently threatening the worlds food supply? In addition to producing the herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides that all too commonly drench our fields, these companies are increasingly playing a hand in altering and patenting the species and varieties on which these chemicals are sprayed. The playbook often goes like this: take a common variety that has been grown, saved and selected on for thousands of generations; use modern GM tech to alter a single gene or two among the plant’s tens of thousands; apply for a utility patent which claims you’ve invented a novel product; force this product on the world’s farmers who now have no financial choice but to stay on this technological treadmill; via patent law, prevent other farmers, gardeners, independent breeders and universities from saving, sharing, and selling the seed or using the genetic material to further breed new varieties for the public commons. If this sounds evil, it’s because it is. While in many cases patents can be used to incentivize and reward creativity, this phenomenon does the opposite. By locking up more and more genetic material into the hands of a handful of multinational corporations, intellectual property laws are preventing hundreds of thousands of farmers and breeders the opportunity to use this gift of nature, this public technology, to further develop varieties that will be important to the future of our species. We’ve heard from many organic seed companies and university breeders that are already feeling the chill. But the problem gets even nuttier: Now, many of these companies are applying for patents over entire traits, like pinkness in tomatoes, long necks in broccoli or even, get this…drought resistance! These are traits often governed by the interaction of hundreds of genes in ways nobody completely understands (let alone created).  It remains to be seen how well some of these more egregious patents will actually get approved, or more importantly, hold up in court if the company actually sues for infringement. The issue really hit home for us local organic seed producers when, last week, another small local seed company received a letter from one of the companies mentioned above. It was essentially a soft threat, stating that they were in pursuit of patenting several broad, vague plant traits, similar to the ones I just listed. A more formal way of saying: you little pesky seed companies better think twice before carrying any varieties that also have those traits, cause they’re ours! Oof. Unfortunately, this is all going to get a lot worse before it gets better. I think the best way to counter this trend is to decentralize the seed sector so completely, with hundreds of thousands more breeders, seed savers, regional seed companies, seed libraries, etc, that such patents could never be feasibly enforced. I like to think we’re playing a tiny role in this project.