May 26th, 2014

Nothing on the farm seems to work as hard–or with as much purposeful industry–as our honeybees. Sometimes I’ll just sit back on my elbows near the hives and watch the daily, wandering bustle of their lives: their black-banded bodies freighted with nectar from thousands of obliging flowers, their legs dusted in motes of pollen; so determined and ambitious, so organized. It’s hard not to feel like an idle slacker around them.

Being there:  All magical bustle and industry

We’ve been keeping bees (or they’ve been busily keeping us) for almost five years now and they’ve become so essential to the macro organism of the farm that it’s hard to imagine growing without them. Beyond their remarkable, ambrosial honey, they are the planet’s primary pollinators, responsible for thirty percent of the food we humans eat.

What they draw from the floral landscape, the raw honey we harvest, is one of nature’s miracles. Honey is the only food that never spoils (they’ve found edible honey in the tombs of the pharaohs), and, in its raw form, is an excellent anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and anti-fungal (it can even be used topically to treat infection). It’s rich in anti-oxidants,  a boost to your immune system, and local, raw honey (not the pasteurized yellow stuff at the supermarket) even helps with allergies: A tablespoon a day of raw honey from within a 100 miles radius of your home acts as an allergy immune booster, since the bees are processing the same pollen that’s making you seasonably miserable.

Deep, Rich, Raw: honey ready for CSA members

The world would be bleak without bees, of course, so deciding to keep them–despite their unpredictable wildness–is an act of stewardship and conservation(oh yeah, there’s the reward of all that honey too). But I learned the hard way that becoming and apiarist isn’t just about setting up a few hives and letting the bees work their magic untended; like anything on the farm, there’s a fair amount thoughtful management and care involved.

Sweet, pleated quince blossoms in the orchard are delicious spring forage for bees

We’ve had our colonies collapse, or swarm out of their sticky, comfortable digs for no apparent reason, or perish in the brutality of a polar vortex, but we’ve persisted each year. Besides pollination and honey, keeping bees makes you something of an activist. Since bee populations have declined precipitously and mysteriously in the last decade (most likely due to the overuse of systemic pesticides), caring for a few of your own hives not only keeps you in delicious raw honey, but makes a small but meaningful contribution to the survival of this remarkable species.  –Mb

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November 6th, 2013

“He was glad that he liked the country undecorated, hard, and stripped of its finery. He had got down to the bare bones of it, and they were fine and strong and simple.”

– Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows

Now that a few frosts have left Stonegate “stripped of its finery”–its green, biomolecular skin turned to mush–the farm has begun a swift and certain journey towards oblivion.

SGF Nov. 13-6993

Anise Hyssop, along with other herbs and flowers, have been transformed into delicious organic teas and spices.

The lurking cold has crept into beds of greens, transforming tender leaves and stalks into slack ribbons of decay. Once-vibrant rows of cut flowers that persisted all season have been hung up and dried; Jezebels of seductive color forced to put on their veils.

SGF Nov. 13-6865The stable has been hung high with drying flowers.

It’s reassuring to see that the bees, despite their wildness, have done some good cognitive mapping of the property and beyond, know where the food and shelter is, and are now huddled in the walled domestic darkness of the hive, forming a winter clusters around their queens.

The chickens are spending more time cooped up, heading out occasionally to peck at fallen fruit and frozen bugs. On cold days–besides the wood smoke curling into the sky, or clouds of brittle leaves scattering about–they’re the only thing moving.

SGF Nov. 13-6625

Chickens, drumstick-deep in warm straw, are beginning to prep for winter.

November is post-mortem time. Time to sort through the pathology of what did or didn’t work, what grew well, what failed to deliver.  Seed packets are always as full of promise as they are seeds.

Flower and vegetable annuals live out a lifetime in a few months–birth, growth, decline, death. A nicely-framed physiological snapshot compared to us.

SGF Nov. 13-6909Celosia spicata ‘Flamingo Feather’ makes for beautiful dried bouquets.

Plants may not have consciousness as we know it, but they can tell us something deep about living; free from the existential burden of defining themselves, they just are.

We, on the other hand, are obsessed with self-definition–more than ever in a social-media world, where fretting about on-line likes, tweets and posts are a form of virtual existence and affirmation, and seem to give distorted meaning to it all (he says, writing a blog)

SGF Nov. 13-6955Hot peppers are being dried for their flaky seeds.

Just being used to be enough, to “tramp a perpetual journey,” as Whitman said. But sit in an airport, a bar or a café, or even walk down the street these days and you’ll see that everyone is somewhere else, no one is present.

Wherever we go, it seems, there we aren’t.

One thing farming asks of you, besides considerable patience and humility, is to be present, to be empirically engaged in the world around you. There’s no other way to do it. For me, this little farm keeps it real.  – Mb

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October 22nd, 2013
Where the Wild Things Are

If Hinduism has it right, and honey is one of the five elixirs of immortality, then I may be fated to a life everlasting, free of karmic debt; the fall honey flow at Stonegate Farm has been that good.

SGF OCT-4Bees are calmed with puffs of smoke.  They assume their house is on fire, and gorge on honey, not you.  You’re just another guy outside in a suit smoking.

Unlike the Spring harvest, which was translucent and sweet from the nectar of orchard blossoms, the fall forage from goldenrod, calendula, anise, cosmos, and borage has been transformed into a honey that is slow-moving and deep; a10w30 shade of sweet, raw crude.

SGF OCT-5Frames heavy with capped honey are removed from the upper supers.

When we pulled heavy fames of comb from our hives last week, the long, liquid pour of dark amber that emerged was remarkable. It seemed to contain all of the sun’s complex energy; elaborated by flowers and bees, ambrosia for us.

SGF OCT-7Female worker bees filling comb cells with nectar.

The harvest begins with a smoke–a universal sedative, it seems–to calm the bees (assuming there’s a fire, they gorge on honey, and not you, as a survival instinct). Then frames of comb are pulled from the upper hives boxes (or supers) and the comb in uncapped with a hot knife and spun in a centrifuge-like extractor until the cells are empty. The raw honey is then filtered of pollen, odd bee parts, and flecks of comb and decanted into jars. Then you just stare at it for a while with slack-jawed wonder.

SGF OCT-10Cutting caps from comb in the barn to extract raw honey.

It’s important to take only enough, of course. Though bees are terrific doomsday hoarders, they’ve stored all that honey for themselves, not for you. With autumn’s exhalation into winter, it’s requiem time at the farm, lacrimosa, and the bees know it. Taking their honey is a tacit but tense agreement between you and wildness: You manage the property and pay the bills, and we’ll share the sweet stuff.

They are truly wild and miraculous things, honeybees, and have been cultivated and coveted by humans for thousands of years. With their organizational rigor, their mysterious chemical chatter, the Euclidian symmetry of their hives, it hard not be impressed.

SGF OCT-12Deep amber honey filters through a sieve.

Most amazing is their selflessness, their collaborative understanding of the common good (are you listening, Washington?). Even if the colony is a kind of macro “self,” and individual bees are mere neurons, incapable of independent thought outside the hive’s collective consciousness, they seem to have created a utopian survival mechanism worth envying.  We should be so lucky.

SGF OCT-14Ball jars slowly filling with late fall honey.

Our cultured bees (Apis mellifera) not only create honey, of course, they are our primary pollinators, and are responsible for thirty percent of the food we humans eat.

So their survival is linked closely to our own, not only for the fruits and vegetables they fertilize, but for what they can teach us about working together to save our own hive.  –Mb


“Well,” said Pooh, “what I like best,” and then he had to stop and think. Because although Eating Honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were, but he didn’t know what it was called.” ― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

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September 24th, 2013
Farming Under the Influence

September, elliptical month, month of transitions, and the farm is truly, madly beautiful at the moment: late fruit hanging ripe and slack, sun jetting through the thinning trees, the primal clarity of the light.

SEPT BLOG -8223Mornings in the flower farm are an experience to be savored, particularly in September, with its long, low shadows and luxuriant growth.

The whole place seems high on itself, and at levels way beyond the legal limit. It doesn’t help that I photograph food and gardens for a living (and what is a farm if not a food garden?), so I’m tuned in to all this beauty at insanely high decibels.

Once the visual dopamine pulses, it takes me and wastes me and I’m left to photograph and farm under the influence (an agricultural misdemeanor in most states).

They don’t call us Stoned Gate Farm for nothing.


A late-season harvest of greens with scarlet nasturtium blossoms.

If I’m not careful, my license to farm might be revoked, or worse, be sent to Ag rehab, where compulsive locavores, foodies and organic micro farmers sit in sad, slump-shouldered circles and come clean about their obsessions.

It’s an occupational hazard to fall hard for farming. Once it’s got a hold of you, it’s like a badger, and won’t let go until it crushes bone, or spirit, or energy. If you’re lucky (and luck is as much a part of farming as planning and planting), you get to the end of the season, as we have, and are truly thankful for your magical and productive piece of earth.

This late season buzz is the farm’s way of deeply imprinting–before the big chill of Winter–how important it will be to start all over again next Spring. Like any organism, its MO is just to keep on keepin’ on.

SEPT BLOG -9039A harvest of fuzzy, misshapen quince from the orchard will be transformed into tart preserves.  Lucky us.

My MO is to keep this small farm going strong, in all of its permutations. Besides the book I’m writing and shooting about Stonegate for Rodale (Growing Beautiful Food, 2015), I photographed the farm for Better Homes & Gardens last week: a lot of visual scrutiny and creative madness, but all for the best. If the broader aim of a small, local CSA farm is not just membership, but education and inspiration, about turning people on to eating locally and well, then being a media farmer is a plus.

SEPT BLOG -1992Jewel-like eggplant is almost too pretty to eat.

Ironically, when I lose a CSA member because they’ve decided to grow their own, I feel as though I’ve done my job.

We’ll continue to serve it up this Fall for those who signed up for a late season share, and we plan to bring it on again next year with our 2014 CSA, unless, of course, we lose you to your own back yard. –Mb

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September 4th, 2013

My own apple genius bar was set pretty high when I presumed that cultivating an organic orchard at Stonegate was even remotely doable.

The cooperative extension folks shook their Carhartt-capped heads at my callow ambitions; nurseries tried to sell me the same old dreary disease-resistant cultivars; and local farmers insisted that the Hudson Valley, with its centuries of apple production, had created its own Darwinian microcosm of ever-adaptive pestilence would do me in.

Sept blog  9-2013-1737My 1852 copy of  AJ Downing’s Fruit and Fruit Trees of America.

It seemed without the regular puffing-out of vast clouds of synthetic pesticides, I was doomed to harvesting bushels of rotting, inedible muck.

The organic apples were truly forbidden fruit; a tired old trope for original sin.

So, of course – always one to succumb to a little biblical temptation – I planted them: Historic apples with seductive, suggestive names like Hidden Rose, Maidenblush, Pink Sparkle; those that sounded decent and honorable like Ashmead’s Kernel and Esopus Spitzenberg; or a few that reeked of high-born patrician plant-naming, like Duchess of Oldenberg, Devonshire Quarrandon, and C’aville Blanc D’hiver.

Sept blog  9-2013-1401Devonshire Quarrendon, an antique English variety from the 1600s with a complex, vinous bite.

The choosing of varieties (and there are sixteen dwarf, spindle-trained apples trees in my orchard) was not entirely up to me. I have the ghost AJ Downing and his nineteenth-century tome Fruit and Fruit Trees of America to thank for much of the fussy decision-making.

Downing, who was the foremost pomologist of his time and had his nursery in Newburgh, just a few miles from my farm, is something of a legend in these parts. More than just a plant nerd, he was a prominent horticulturalist, landscape designer, architect, author who cast a long and dazzling spell during his short life (he died at 37, drowned rescuing others during a steamship fire on the Hudson).  When it came down to planting an orchard at Stonegate, I wanted Downing help.

Sept blog  9-2013-1227An historic apple harvest of Hidden Rose, Devonshire Quarrendon, Kerry Pippin, Keswick Codlin, Holstein, Maidenblush, and Golden Russet ready for pick-up.

I spent weeks on-line, obsessed, looking for rare and historic apple and pear varieties that Downing knew and grew more than 150 years ago, and stumbled across a quirky, cranky rare-fruit nursery on the southwestern tip of Michigan called Southmeadow Fruit Gardens – they even quoted Downing on the cover of their catalog! After cross-referencing varieties they were growing with one’s Downing had written about and praised, I put my order in.

With minimally invasive, organic pest management, the orchard at Stonegate has matured over the past five years, and the apples this season are the pay-out: flecked and pocked and full of a kind of organic indignation for what passes for fruit these days, these are apples to be reckoned with.

Sept blog  9-2013-0781Dwarf apple and pear in the orchard, fronted by ripening blackberries.

We’ve just tasted some of the the first remarkable fruit of that planting, with a bushel or more of Golden Russet, with its fine-grained flesh and bronze cheeks; Maidenblush, flaring red over tender, yellow skin; Kerry Pippin, with its spicy, aromatic tang; and Hidden Rose, its flesh faintly streaked with pink – the apple of my i.

They may not be the prettiest pommes out there, but they’ve got plenty of of organic personality. And unlike the dull, synthetic supermodels at the A&P, these apples have so much to say.  –Mb

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August 20th, 2013

Judging by our lobed and fissured tomatoes and mottled fruit, we grow beautifully imperfect food at Stonegate Farm.

Imperfect in the idealized, Apollonian sense, that is, but oh-so-perfect in the fabulous flavor, nutrient density department.

SGF AUGUST-8724Heirloom tomatoes: Cracked, fissured, bruised and swollen to perfection.

Organic is really a euphemism for misshapen beauty, or the Eastern aesthetic philosophy of wabi-sabi, where imperfections, transience, and asymmetry have more value, and are “more perfect” than perfection.

In Japan, for example, where the modern CSA movement, called TeiKei, began, wabi-sabi is central to their aesthetic philosophy. The more crazed and cracked the teapot, the wonkier the pear, the greater its integrity, beauty and value.

SGF AUGUST-8785Sweet, multi-colred cherry tomatoes are more vain than their larger cousins

There is something beautiful in transience, in the faltering impermanence of living things, be it an over-ripe Shiro plum or even us.

Our closest approximation is Virgil’s  Lacrimae rerum, or “tears of things,” but try and use that (or worse, quote Virgil) when selling anything in the new and improved West. So much of Eastern philosophy is simply lost in a land where the newer, shinier and more Botoxed the better.

Organic beauty has always been more than skin deep; in fact, its skin is often deeply flawed. With no toxic, petroleum armor to protect it, organic produce must fend for itself, relying on the skilled coddling of its growers.

SGF AUGUST-8866Our first tomato harvest of the season.  Set back by oppressive heat and rain, they’ve finally come through.

Much of what we grow wouldn’t pass visual muster at the local Price Chopper, where isles of pesticide-infused sameness prevail. But our wabi-sabi veggies, greens and orchard-grown fruit–even the weathered siding of our century-old barn–have a deep and resonant beauty that you can’t get from mass production.

It’s no wonder the Japanese, with their non-western paradigms, created a partnering system between consumers and organic farmers, where they not only cooperated with each other, but also with the lovely imperfection of the natural world.

They say that when you learn a new language, you acquire a new soul, and the language of organics is about working symbiotically with nature’s quirks and variations, not against them.

Maybe growing local and organic creates not only better food, but better philosophy.  –Mb

Prayers of peppers

Broken tomatoes

Grown in perfect summer

(flawed vegetable haiku)

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August 9th, 2013
Thank You, You’re Beautiful

I must have flowers, always, and always” said Claude Monet, and, like him, Stonegate Farm is under the spell of a kind of wild, floral alchemy this season, with organic cut flowers having their magical way with us.

SGF AUGUST-7153My daughter, Daisy Marlena, 11, with an early-morning harvest of Celosia ‘Ruby Parfait’. We think they make a beautiful bouquet.

With radiant blooms busting out all over, I think – even in his near-blindness – Monet would have fumbled for a fistful of horsehair brushes and gone at it, particularly the luminous, raveled clumps of nasturtium, which still grow so beautifully underneath his famous allée at Giverny.

There would be more for him to take in, of course: dark-plumed amaranth and velveteen sunflowers, towering above it all with watchful Cyclopian eyes; the blue, upright bristle of anise hyssop or the radiant chromatic whorls of long-stemmed zinnias.

SGF AUGUST-7034A handful of multi-colored Benarys zinnias.

All of this color and form goes to my head (have you noticed?), but why not farm for beauty?  If you’re looking for earthly transcendence, you’ll find it in flowers.

SGF AUGUST-7037A bucketful of beauty at the farm, waiting for its arranged marriage

I’m up early, and usually make a bee-line (along with the bees), to the flower farm where, even in the half-light before the sun stretches through the trees, the blossoms are filling the air with fragrance. Besides the smell of dark espresso, that’s all I want my nose to know.

Harvests from the flower farm always happen in the early morning, before the blossoms fully unfold, so that they’re as fresh as possible for the CSA shares. With shears and buckets, they’re carefully cut just above a new leaf node, with a quiet “thank you, you’re beautiful” snip, and arranged into the week’s bouquets.

SGF AUGUST-7047Our honeybees do their pollen dance around the eye of a sunflower.

It’s hard to go wrong with any of these, and they all cast a spell, but the neon buttons of pink gomphrena paired with the molten, lava-lamp purples of celosia is one of my favorites.

There is one flower above all that has my heart, however, and that’s my daughter Daisy; lovely and sweet, she is all flowers to me.  –Mb

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July 4th, 2013
Don Juan Draper

Another pullet went trans-gender on us last week.  We’d ordered a sexed run in February, meaning all female (you don’t need a rooster to have eggs), and one of the Araucanas had always seemed a bit butch – less chat and gossip, more heavy lifting – so I had my suspicions.


It’s good to be king.

Then suddenly, a strident, piercing yodel, and all the aloof and indomitable maleness that follows. I’ve had to assert my alpha to his beta, of course, but the fluttering harem is his. Now the crow is all day long, a sexual marathon of carping because he just can’t get enough (meanwhile, we can get an oeuff from our teenage harpies!)

We’ve called the newly-outed rooster Don Draper, after the over-sexed drunk on Mad Men, and just to stay on theme, our little covey of Peking ducks are Joan and Peggy. The rest of the hens are just flirty, egg-laying extras, hoping Don will offer them a drink and a shag.

SGF JULY-3455Mr. Draper on the prowl for a bit of tail feather.

I’m of two minds about roosters. They’re more imperious and beautiful than the hens, so points there for my meddlesome camera and me, but the noise and the rough sex are alarming–like a neighbor with multiple clients in cuffs and leather. There’s also not a lot of sweet feathered courtship or foreplay. It’s all frenetic, sexual hop-scotch (or would that be Kentucky bourbon for Don?)

Having a rooster around is an encounter with maleness at its most primal:  All the territorial machismo, the rampant, brutish polygamy, the subjugation of females.  But it’s best not to project onto nature; she has her reasons.  It’s only when we intervene and skew the balance that the trouble begins.

SGF JULY-3686Je t’embraceCarrot love is slow and sweet, unlike the debauchery above ground.

Mornings are the busiest for Mr. Draper. He wakes with a few good crows, then romps through the orchard, downing dead cicadas for protein and a few stray berries for breath, before going on the prowl–coming on to whatever bit of fluff will have him.

Because he’s still such a callow lover, he hasn’t yet learned the slow, copulatory waltz of chicken wooing: one wing down and extended, a rhythmic sway around the hen. His efforts are graceless and awkward, like any teenager.

SGF JULY-3283Don, Joan, Peggy.

For the hens, who are still learning to master in the submissive come-hither crouch, this is just the laying before the laying. Let Don Juan Draper have his moment, then it’s on to the important business of domestic squabbling over roosts and worm scraps.

Don is a future king. Though still too slight of crown and feather, he will enter his prime in the next year, a princely young cockerel to be reckoned with.  –Mb

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June 28th, 2013

Out of such chaos comes the dancing star” said my favorite dystopian curmudgeon Neitzche, who may have come from farming blood for all I know. His obsessions with hardship and trial as paths to enlightenment, just like Homeric and eastern mythology, are very much in the spirit of agriculture.

And if agriculture has a Grail–an odyssey of tribulation and effort–it’s organic fruit.


Pearls of red currant in the orchard

Fruit is the hardest thing we grow. When cultivating organic fruit, from pomme (apple, pear, quince) and stone (plum, cherry) to thorny brambles, it’s us against insects, fungi, birds, squirrels, chipmunks and the rest of ravenous creation. Even the chickens went on a bender this week when a few cherries dropped to the orchard floor while we were harvesting.

Fruit is desire; it’s forbidden biblical temptation (we might still be living in giddy, sinless oblivion had Eve handed Adam a fistful of kale.)  And while most fruit is sweet, tempting our evolutionary desire for sugar, I’m in love with sour: The sharp, lip-puckering sour of ripe currants or gooseberries, or the tang of tart cherries in the mouth; blood-red and swollen, with stone-hard pits that must be spat. Maybe they just seem edgier, and a less obvious choice, given the physiology of taste.

SGF LATE JUNE-2290Harvesting begins, one glowing strand at a time.

Humans can sense five tastes: sour, salty, bitter, sweet and umami (sot sauce-like fermented-ness), and sweet has been something we’ve done way too well for too long and are paying the price in epidemic obesity and diabetes.  We’ve been sugar bombed and beaten into a neophobic lull by agri-business for decades, and it’s time for sour to have its moment.

Look at the growing popularity of the sour and bitter taste spectrum, from kombucha and hoppy beer to pickling just about everything, and it seems sour is making strides.  Our bodies will thank us:  Acids from sour fruit are crucial, since humans must get ascorbic acid from their diet (unlike most mammals, who can make their own) and if we don’t eat it, we’ll die of scurvy.

SGF LATE JUNE-3064A sour CSA share: currants, gooseberries and sour cherries, great when mitigated by sweetness.  Gooseberries and ice cream anyone?

So what is it about tartness?  Is it just that it’s an anti-venum to the cloying, corn-sweetened everything of our culture? “Sour foods are growing because of what they aren’t: Sweet,” says Mark Garrison in the on-line mag Slate last week. “With public health officials and influential food polemicists in open warfare with soda and corn syrup, the opposite of their flavor profile sounds an awful lot safer to many consumers.”

SGF LATE JUNE-2963Tart and delicious sour cherries.

You’ll be happy to know that Stonegate has been going sour since its inception, with black and red currants, sour cherries, quince, gooseberries, and chokeberries (as in “choking on insane bitterness”). Cultivating fruit is what drew me to farming in the first place, and an affinity for the work nineteenth century cultural stylist Andrew Jackson Downing and his ideas on both fruit cultivation and rural architecture.  An orchard heavy with organic fruit seemed as close to the vault of agricultural nirvana as I could get.

I think Downing would have liked it here, even the way I found it more than fifteen years ago. The wonderful gothic-ness of the place–clambered over and claimed by bindweed, wild grape and lilac, with the lovely bones barely poking through a skin a neglect: Stonegate in the raw, abandoned to time and indifference.

Downing would have seen the potential, particularly now, with the orchard in its fullness, radiant and heavy with the sweet and sour glimmer of fruit, like Neitzches’s dancing stars, lighting up the farm.          –Mb

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June 17th, 2013
Out of This World

With a CSA share this past week of neon-purple kohlrabi, snap peas with their tender twining shoots thrown in, and a constellation of edible flowers, we’re reaching into the beyond for taste and texture. Throw in the drumming and flooding rain and the freakish, alien cicadas whirring about, and it feels like science fiction out there.

SGF JUNE 15 2013-8434Harvesting sweet and crisp snap peas and shoots

Kohlrabi is the Sputnik of brassicas. With its gangly, out-rigged antennae and swollen, spherical center, you can almost imagine it floating silently in the cosmos.  And Snap peas, with their clambering tendrils and pods of remarkable sweetness are also, metaphorically at least, out of this world.

SGF JUNE 15 2013-8461Satellites of purple kohlrabi

Having descended  from their skyward vines on delicate white parachutes of bloom, the Sugar Snap pods have emerged to conquer our taste buds. And they’ve come in peas.

The ongoing space race on the farm is so 1960s. Where the peas are beginning to tower, indeterminate cherry tomatoes below are competing for light and nutrients, waiting for their turn in the sky. The peas have been fixing nitrogen in the soil (something legumes do) and will make it available for hungry tomatoes. Lettuces, too, have been carrying on well into early summer, shaded as they are by the broad leaves of kale and chard; and nasturtium, squash and pole beans are all in a delicious tangle for space. At Stonegate, the universe may be expanding, but it’s not infinite.

SGF JUNE 15 2013-8584With a taste reminiscent of radish and broccoli, and an evocative form, kohlrabi is one of the stars of the farm

At the moment, the war of the worlds is mostly being fought in the orchard, where cicada mating and egg laying has begun in the tree fruit and chokeberries. Although I went about mercifully at first, unable dash the hopes of so many seventeen-year-old virgins, I’ve had a change of heart. All it took was one look at a young quince tree, with its velveteen fruit full of promise but its outer branches collapsed and dying from the bark-piercing spawn of females cicadas to turn me.  They had me at hell no.

SGF JUNE 15 2013-8919Snap peas’ sweet and floral tendrils

So  the cicada pogrom was on. Mating pairs we’re plucked in-flagrante from branch tips and crushed. Spent and feckless males were fed to excited chickens. Larvae ridden bark has been thrown on the burn pile. It’s a winless battle, I know, but maybe it will put a dent in the next brood, or my own exasperation.

SGF JUNE 15 2013-8997Last week’s eye and mouth candy: snap peas and shoots, edible flowers, purple kohlrabi, and fragrant Russian sage.

The cicadas will fly to the tree tops, mate, and die. The indeterminate tomatoes and pole beans and sunflowers will defy gravity and touch the sky, the surreal climbing squash and cucumbers will curl themselves upward, and we’ll be down below, buzzed about it all.  To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, “we’re all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” —Mb

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June 9th, 2013
Not Even the Rain

“Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands” said ee cummings, not anticipating the wet fists of weather that pounded the farm last week, drenching hapless bees an chickens and turning topsoil into a slurry of unworkable muck.

We need water, of course, but not that much, and not so relentlessly. Sitting on a pretty high aquifer here at Stonegate means that heavy rains tend to percolate up and glaze across the ground like a tide.

SGF MID JUNE 2013-7174Mustard greens, trying to hold on to their delicious heat, despite the drizzle.

We’re perched above the Hudson River, so it’s rhythmic tidal push and pull is familiar; we feel it, and we try to plant according to lunar cycles, a form of biodynamic farming that considers the moon’s pull on moisture and nutrients in the soil and in plant cells.

Developed by scientist and philosopher Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s, The best biodynamic farming looks for harmony between earth and sky, between soil, plant and planet, and tries to score those forces into one harmonic voice. This is no easy task, with all the dissonant pressure from pest and fungi acting against organic growing.  But it feels right here, and we’re doing our lyrical best.

SGF MID JUNE 2013-7294Baby bok choy and frilled mustards, perfect for braising or salad.

The way we interplant diverse vegetables, herbs and flowers at Stonegate in close, careful proximity means we moderate soil temperatures and reduce weed pressure, and we create relationships and dialogue between species that are mutually beneficial.

It’s arcane science, to be sure—the subtle whispering between cells—but the most poetic and meaningful things usually are.

SGF MID JUNE 2013-7522The tender bunching onions loved the rain.

Even some of the nutrients we add to the farm come from deep, other-worldy places. If you ever visit Stonegate midweek, you might feel as though you’re walking  through the salty savor of low tide. We spray with an organic fish and seaweed fertilizer that leaves plants high on ancient minerals unlocked from the bones and bodies of fish, from sea-green ribbons of brine and whatever else the mysterious tide brings up.

This nutrient-rich emulsion is spread across the farm as a foliar feed, where it works its slow, deep, delicious magic.

SGF MID JUNE 2013-7568Sprays of rainbow chard and purple lacinato kale.

“The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient,” said Anne Morrow Lindbergh in Gift from the Sea. Patience is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith.”

So too with farming.  Patience and faith are persistent mantras.  Patience in bringing seed to leaf and fruit, faith that it will all actually work, and that weather and pests won’t undo you.

I love bringing the tidal sea back to the farm, the same sea that once moved as glaciers and created the very topsoil I’m farming. It quickens the steady biodynamic pulse of the place, and deepens its wonder. —Mb

“…one thirsts for the magnitude and universality of a night full of stars, pouring into one like a fresh tide.” Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea

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June 1st, 2013
Some Assembly Required

Late spring harvests at Stonegate Farm begin early in the morning, when the tender greens are cool and moist and the edible blossoms are barely open.

An assembled salad mix, with three varieties of loose-leaf lettuce, plus broccoli rabe and garlic chive blossom.

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May 27th, 2013
Sex in the Trees

Periodical cicadas have begun to prowl the air this week, ending seventeen years of purgatorial root-sucking in the soil. They’re molting out of their thin, flightless shells and emerging en masse to deafen and terrify us with their shrill abdominal drumming and apocalyptic numbers.

5-27 AA periodical cicada, seventeen years in the making.

So many all at once; a plague of winged ghouls, coming out of the darkness like Orpheus, singing.

They’ll make their way to the treetops, where they’ll spend a few weeks conducting a thrumming orchestra of sex and birth and death, mating and laying eggs in the green wood of branch tips before a final rattle of life and skyfall turns them to chicken feed.

Their hatched nymphs will emerge, too, and fall to earth, burrowing down into an incubation of darkness to begin the next brood cycle.  All of this just to keep on keepin’ on, and at seventeen years from grub to gone, they’re the longest lived insect on the planet.

527EFruit in the orchard, protected from cicadas and other beasties with a dusting of clay.

Cicadas are strange, otherworldly creatures, armored and bloody-eyed, with a blunt head and cellophane wings. At almost two inches, they fly about like cargo planes, in slow, seemingly aimless paths, looking for mates.  And though I know the damage they can cause to trees with their egg-laying wounds (I can hear my young orchard screaming), I can’t bring myself to kill them. Any insect that waits so many years to be unbound and on the wing deserves its moment in the sun.

The summer my wife (then girlfriend) and I first bought this place, we were coming up from the city on weekends and bushwhacking overgrown lilac and bittersweet, and they had just emerged. We were on a garden tour, and the cicadas were rasping and whirring in the trees with such desperate enthusiasm that we couldn’t hear anyone speak. As the insects bonked clumsily into people’s heads, we huddled in tight, protective circles and talked plants. It was the most intimate garden tour I’ve ever been on.

527 DGooseberries netted against that other winged predator: birds

Sometimes cicadas get it wrong, and emerge in years when the rest of the brood is still sub-terra. Like showing up for a party as a hapless fool because you got the date wrong, they send their lonely rattle out into the void and die unrequited.  The cicada story does seem like a sad love affair – an existential lark.  All that time waiting for a short spasm of life in the sky and then death.  What’s the point?

Well, for us humans, burdened by heavy brains we have, life is about more than mere consciousness: we fret over significance and purpose.  We fill the space between the bookends with the struggle for meaning.  Maybe the joke is on us?

So I let the cicadas have their day in the sun. They have a purpose-driven life and their sole aim is to keep the whole, strange dance going. I do protect my apple, pear and quince from them and other damaging insects with a ghost-like dusting of micro-fine clay, however. It irritates their tiny, interlocking membranes (think of sand in your ear) and, clogged and bothered, they move on.  The birds, squirrels and chipmunks are thwarted with netting. In an organic orchard, an ounce of prevention (in a backpack sprayer) is always worth a pound of cure.

527CWe parade the orchard netting out each year after bloom.

I’ve been on this property now for as long as the last brood of cicadas droned in the trees, and have done my own share of incubation and emergence. The farm has come out from a tangle of neglect and taken flight. That’s meaning enough for me.  –Mb

…underground the blind nymphs waken and move.

They must begin at last to struggle towards love…

This is the wild light that our dreams foretold

while unaware we prepared these eyes and wings-

while in our sleep we learned the song the world sings.

–Judith Wright, The Cicadas

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May 5th, 2013
My Dilemma with Omnivores

“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants,” says local-food evangelist Michael Pollan, and though his books have been translated in at least sixty-five languages including Urdu, Chicken wasn’t one of them. Even if it were, it would be lost in translation on my willful mob. Can you say “Eat food, lots of it, mostly Matthew’s plants.”

CSA May 2013-9344Breakfast of Chickens:  The apple blossom special.

My Dilemma with Omnivores is their lack of discrimination. They seem to pick up on the coddled pheromone trail I’ve invested into my favorite varieties an go for those first.  Just when a long-awaited apple,  pear or tomato is heavy with itself, it’s pecked or gnawed into oblivion.

Chickens are über-omnivores:  They’ll sample, trial and taste almost anything, even chicken (don’t ask).  And they’ve become so unhinged lately by the delirium of Spring that they’ve even taken to browsing the blossoms off of fruit trees in the orchard.  Who does that?

I’m not alone, of course.  I just have a larger produce department than most home gardeners, and a few too many fowl wandering the aisles.

CSA May 2013-9492Annual Lamium purpurium carpets the orchard. Also known as henbit, it’s chicken candy.

I spoke about “Growing Beautiful Food” at a big garden conference last month in Connecticut, where the Master Gardeners were many, and the Q&A was mostly about predation.  “Yes, it’s all very pretty, and thank you for your lovely presentation, but what about the critters?  How do you keep them out?  This was the idée fixe: Beauty is negotiable,  plundering is not.

And while I implored them to sacrifice a few peonies for eggplant, they couldn’t get passed the loss factor. Though growing things is always fraught with peril, growing food–no matter how beautiful, healthful, and environmentally responsible—is asking for trouble. Of course, in the long haul, not growing your own, or not supporting those who do it locally and organically, is the real worry;  It will be no accident when we just can’t feed ten billion people on chemically saturated agricultural land that’s dependent on a diminishing supply of petroleum. So a few wayward chickens or nibbled greens are the least of our worries.

I’m seeking absolution, I suppose; having come in from the urban cold of not knowing (or caring) where my food came from, to caring deeply and deciding to do something about it.

I came from cities – physically, psychologically. From the bump and bustle of urbanism. No planting, no growing, no harvesting. And yet, here I am in mid-life, an organic farmer, feeding my family, feeding neighbors and CSA members; lost in a headlong swoon for this crazy, sexy piece of earth, and unable to imagine a life without it.

CSA May 2013-9511-2

Spring at Stonegate Farm:  One sexy piece of earth.

So I let the chickens have their barter share: They lay, I look the other way. A dilemma resolved by a kind of rural détante.  Sometimes letting go can be the very thing your life needs.  -Mb

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March 29th, 2013
Heart of Glass

The greenhouse at Stonegate Farm has been transformed this month from a cool, empty glass box to a biosphere of warm green life, taken over by the bustle of seed starting.

It’s Hope Central for the farm, a strange and wonderful refuge of genetic desire. The greenhouse is where you lay out your floral and vegetal longing in orderly blocks of soil, pinch in an improbable speck of seed and say your prayers.  Ora Pro Nobis.

SGF March 2013-8315-3

Thinning seedlings in the greenhouse. The weak shall inherit the compost pile.

Ideas incubate as well here; what to interplant this season, how much of this variety to grow, when to start that. You test plant in coconut coir, or seed start under the cosmic pull of a full moon. You glaze young greens with an emulsion of fish and seaweed and imagine low tide.  It’s all very seductive, to be inside this small ship of hope, when the gray and cold of late March is still clawing at the glass.

You pump iTunes through your brain to give rhythm and meter to the monotony of planting, or a sacred dirge when thinning fragile and crowded cotyledons (yes, even though they have a fetal heartbeat). You meditate on the meaning of growing food for yourself and others and why it matters.

SGF 5-11-1220-1The heart of glass at the center of the farm.

This season, with the first expansion of the farm in five years, it’s a wonderfully crowded house. The cut flowers alone, preening beauties that they are, have laid claim to half the space, while the dozens of new vegetable varieties pack the aisles.  Maybe we should crank some Green Day into the glassy mosh pit?

While I was away from Stonegate this winter, having fled to Europe on an annual Bavarian hajj where my family, alps and mountain huts beckon, these plans were all virtual, scrawled out in journals and circled in dog-eared seed catalogs. My absence always seems to make the farm grow fonder. I miss the weight of organic dirt caked into worn boots, the midnight rustling-up of lost and frightened chickens, the fussy coddling of pears and quince in an orchard.

Even while Sandy and Nemo gave us a climatic battering, and kept me cursing the gods from far away, I couldn’t wait to pick the farm up and start all over again.

SGF March 2013-8432-5Shoveling the Sh*t at the horse farm.

But that’s just part of why we do this. As gardeners, growers, and micro-farmers , we see things as we are, and if we’re joyful, hopeful souls, we’ll always come back, happy to press our wills against the vicissitudes of weather and temperamental plant habit; to fungal disease and the relentless, destructive hunger of insects an critters.

“Though I am an old man, I am but a young gardener,” said Thomas Jefferson at the end of his life, and we will do no better.  We’ll  leave this world wanting one more season, one more heirloom tomato to grow and swoon over, one more squash or melon variety to trail and taste.

For now, we’re in the greenhouse–the glassy, pulsing heart of the farm–seeing things as we are.  -Mb

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February 5th, 2013
Baby Radish, Whimpering

We have two young farmers joining us this season at Stonegate Farm from Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Westchester, NY, where they’ve been honing (and hoeing) their farm and flower skills.

TH BLUEHILL MBF-773-2A fence of farm-fresh baby vegetables at Blue Hill, skewered into submission

As one of the country’s preëminent diversified farms specializing seasonal, sustainable food, Stone Barns makes farming a beautiful obsession. From the exquisite Rockefeller-financed buildings, to the rolling, linear perfection of its field crops and sheep nibbled pastures, Stone Barns sets the sustainable bar mighty high.

They even have celebrity chef Dan Barber’s renowned Blue Hill restaurant on site, which I photographed last year for Tradional Home magazine. A day at Blue Hill and Stone Barns was reassuring (I’m not alone in my OCD fixation on farming as a romanticized ideal), humbling (I’ll never have even the most tenuous ties to a Rockefeller bankroll) and baffling (I shot a small fence of skewered raw vegetables, an appetizer that looked as though the Inquisition had come through and impaled them for vegetal heresy: “how dare you be so delicious and beautiful!” piercing sound, baby radish whimpering).

TH BLUEHILL MBF-96Stone Barns Center in Westchester, NY, where agriculture and architecture meet on high.

I also photographed a delicious ribboned kale and farro salad, in which vinegar-bathed lacinato kale was tossed with buttery pine nuts, curls of Parmigiano, currants and farro (ember wheat). Yes, we ate the props, down the last delectable chiffonade.

TH BLUEHILL MBF-1018A simple, superlative salad at Blue Hill: Lacinato kale, farro, pine nuts, currant, Parmigiano. Perfect.

In an effort to keep up with the Rockefellers this season (we may not have stone barns, but we have some preposterously large stone gates), we’re going to expand our CSA’s vegetable offerings with more variety and choice, including late season heirlooms, root vegetables, and – most excitingly – cut flowers.

Bouquets of organic cut blooms will be an optional part of the share each week, with bunches of wine and lime toned zinnias, purple gomphrena, nigella, liatris, sweet  pastel snapdragons and sunflowers.  Beauty for its own sake.

We’ll also be offering more on-farm events and workshops, Vitamix mash-ups and barn concerts.  It’s going to be a great season!  You can sign up now for the 2013 CSA share on the website, or simply drop a check in the mail.  Our expanding universe will mean more available shares, but sign-up early to secure a spot.  Spring ahead!  –Mb


December 16th, 2012
Wings of Desire

A solitary hawk circled above the orchard this morning, cutting loose, slow wheels of menace across the sky.  Chickens crouched under brambles, songbirds muted themselves in thickets.  All the mad, flitting bustle of life on the farm came to an abrupt stop.

CHICK FINALSomething dangerous this way comes.

A hawk on the hunt is a magical, ominous sight: it’s silent wings, its keen, focused hunger.  And from on high, the chickens are easy to spot; a fluff of life against a monotony of gray-grey grass.

The land below surely looked scrappier to the red tail than it does to us, with our edited, boots-on-the-ground view. Outside of raked and leaf-blown fields, the woods are a mess: an almost impenetrable tangle of limbs scattered by the latest hurricane, paper and mud stuccoed to trunks, swales sodden with leaves and brush, and above them a tree-line torn and broken against the sky.

The farm is a break from the chaos of wildness, and for the hawk it’s an easy place to spot the random flutter of a meal. Without the fleshed-out green of summer to protect them, the hens are vulnerable when out in the orchard each day in winter, with only the spiked bones of blackberry or a vault of primocanes to protect them.

The hawk perched in an oak tree above the stable and waited.  I scurried about like a protective daddy, trying to herd the terrified hens back into the coop, but they had hunkered down under the blackberries, not to be wrangled.  The red tail sat there preening and self-possessed, assuming she’d have the last laugh, or squawk.


Lookouts patrol the snowy roof of the coop.

We lost a few hens last season, taken out by a swift set of talons in broad daylight, and I’ve since sworn a farmer’s version of the Hippocratic oath, charged with protecting all creatures and crops in my charge (the woodchucks, squirrels, chipmunks, and raccoons have sworn at both me and my oath, as they’ve been trapped and shown to the exits).

Aside from keeping chickens enclosed in a run or pen, however (which would counter our free range philosophy), there’s really no protecting against a determined hawk. If you are small and yummy and out under the open sky, they will have you. This red tail, tired of my leery presence, finally flew off, if only to find a predatory perch somewhere else.

We lost a Cuckoo Maran hen  the next day.  She’s been too heavy for the hawk to carry off, and we found her in the back field, her body opened like a book, with an assembly line of eggs still waiting to be hatched.

Maybe I should have kept the hens cooped up for a day or two until the danger passed?  Or just console myself with a dirge-like chorus from The Circle of Life. But in the end, you try and be part of the harmony, and not tip the balance too much; that’s the goal of sustainability.  Hakuna Matata.  - Mb

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November 27th, 2012
Winter Sweet

We’ve been harvesting into the chill of November at Stonegate this year, and the kale, mustards, Asian greens and soil-buried radishes are bravely fending off each successive frost, the mysterious heartbeat of chlorophyll still pulsing in their leaves.

SGF NOV-5547-4Late season watermelon radishes, with their neon pink centers, have been glowing beneath frost and snow

The farm is usually tilled under and tidied up this time of year, but I was away and returned mid-month to find my greens rallying – even sweetened by their protective conversion of starches to sugars.

Many hearty greens in the brassica family (including cabbages, broccoli, radishes, kale, chard, mustards and brussels sprouts) will sweeten up after a few frosts.  These plants respond to cold by transforming their energy stores into sugars and stashing them in their cells as frost protection. I even sautéed some radishes last week, and watched with delight as the extra sugars caramelized in the pan.

When all else green has given in to the onslaught of cold and dark, it’s a joy to see these stalwarts press on, flaunting their impervious-to-frost airs.

Nov 2012 CSATangy mustards, mixed leaf lettuce and radishes have all flourished into November, giving up some of their heat for sweet.

Kales are also being Vitamixed, greens eaten in Winter salads, radishes chopped and slivered into soup.  Only the eggs have been absent, as the chickens have been in a molt for the last month, diverting their energy into growing a new duvet of feathers for the Winter.  But they seem content and occupied, ranging under an open sky during the day, fluffing up and burying themselves into straw-padded roosts at night. La Dolce Pollo.

And there’s sweetness everywhere on the farm, it seems: In the transformative miracle of winter greens, inside the soft, clustered hum of the bee hives, in the joy of tending land that’s been put to purposeful use.

There’s nothing like caring for a few productive, sustainable acres to sweeten the starch out of your soul.    –Mb

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October 15th, 2012
Qvitten Time

It’s qvitten time at Stonegate, not only because an early October frost took out the last of the leafy greens and brought a quick end to the season, but because the Quince (or Quitten in German) have ripened to a phosphorescent yellow in the orchard and begun to blette, turning their bitter starch to sugar and rendering themselves finally, and sweetly, edible.

CSA 10-12-4994-2

Quince: Lumpy, astringent, unforgettable.

Bletting is a form a decay, really; the same transformation that turns sour and bone-hard medlars sweet and wine grapes into Sauternes.  The French have a poetic word for this metamorphosis, of course:  pourriture noble, or noble rot.  Maybe something similar happens to the lucky few of us as we age – we sweeten!

Quince fruit begins as a pale, pleated blossom in early spring and evolves into an oblong sphere of hard, unforgiving firmness; its fleecy rind, its strange knobs and bumps, its astringent flesh don’t hold much promise until late in the season when they transform themselves.

Or those that haven’t been plundered do. I have a handful of quince that survived the season, but many were plucked early from their boughs by the orchard’s arch enemy: The squirrel.  For a few days in early October, winter-provisioning squirrels sacked and plundered the last of the orchard fruit, but they left me a few quince.  Maybe it’s just too firm and heavy and oddly lumpy for their tastes, or their larder was already full of contraband fruit, so why bother?

I watched helpless as they scampered down from tree-top burrows and leapt in furry, frenetic arcs across lawn and fencerow to the orchard, where they grabbed any fruit they could, giddy and snickering to be sure, and buried it somewhere as a cache for a January pear gelato or sub-zero cobbler.

The apples were the first to go. Small and firm and full of Fall promise, most of them were pilfered by mid-August. So my CSA (Compulsively Sacked Apples) fruit never made it into the weekly shares, and the reliable ebb and flow of dearth and plenty at the farm goes on.

CSA 10-12-4922

After a plunder by squirrels, only the evocative names remained.  Here, Sucré de Montlucon, an historic pear variety, is nothing but a plant tag and limbs.

The few quince I have I will covet and try to transform into an aromatic jam, jelly, or paste, something that’s been done for centuries.  In fact, quince culture long predates that of apples or pears, other pome fruit in the same family (rosaceae), but somewhere along the way lost favor and are now a rare find.

All the more reason to grow them here at Stonegate Farm, where the obscure will always have a home, where quirky botanical history is relevant, and where the squirrels eat like kings.  –Mb

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September 14th, 2012

We’ve begun harvesting late summer sowings at Stonegate Farm of mixed mesclun greens, bok choy, mustard, broccoli raab, and heirloom radish, repeat plantings that bookend a season that began four months ago.

And the blackberries, pole beans and Sun Gold tomatoes have come on in miraculous abundance, their sun-swollen selves dangling like ornaments over trellis and fence.

CSA 9-12-1616CSA 9-12-1710

A Woofer harvest of Sun Gold tomatoes for the weekly CSA, and a Last Tango in Paradise for the seedless Concord grapes in the greenhouse.  They’ll live to dance another day.

By “we” I don’t mean the royal we (Pluralis Majestatis, that would be very sad) but my Woofers and me, helpers who’ve come to the farm from far and wide to sow, harvest, weed, and delight in all things organic. Like the plantings that bookend the season, Woofers tend to keep you balanced and centered; delegating daily chores, managing needs, avoiding idleness (although there’s much joy in idleness).  Without them, it’s possible that things would fall apart; that (to paraphrase Yeats) the center could not hold, and mere anarchy would be loosed upon (my) world.

The anarchy of weeds has certainly been suppressed by the hands and hoes that have been loosed upon them, and far from falling apart, the farm is being re-born daily with their mindful help.

Though there’s still much to be harvested and weeks to go before the farm sleeps, some mid-season stalwarts like the costata romanesco squash and the sweet and abundant greenhouse grapes have thrown in the trowel. The seedless concord that clambers so beautifully beneath greenhouse glass has been pruned back to thick cordons. Its bright purple sweetness lit up shares for more than a month this season.

CSA 9-12-6074CSA 9-12-7053If Google Maps went micro, local and organic, this is what might come up with a search for Stonegate Farm.  Harvests have been colorful and diverse this season, with deep purple pole beans, variegated eggplant, candy-colored pimento peppers, and bright Sun Gold tomatoes.  Grow, Shoot, Eat.

Long season greens like the kale and chard will be with us until frost. Though they may have lost their novelty by now, the lacinato kale, in particular, is one to “cherish until perish”; it’s just so much more nutritious than any other leafy green, full of omega-3s, calcium, iron, proteins and antioxidants. It goes into our smoothies, salads (and psyches) daily.

Just as we anticipate the first new growth in Spring, and delight in the fresh young arugula, spinach and snap peas that emerge, we should anticipate the season’s end,  savor what we have and value where we’ve been. Sounds like a good life-mantra to me.     –Mb

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July 20th, 2012
Incredible, Edible

Flowers are the narcissists of the garden, shouting from far above their lanky stems, or twining on high to get our attention:  “Look at me, aren’t I beautiful!” And they are! We take in their self-loving beauty easily with the eyes. But why not experience that splendor in the mouth, feel a blossoms strange, pleated silk on the tongue. Birds do it, bees do it, why on earth shouldn’t we do it?


Blossoms at Stonegate Farm. Why just look, when you can taste?

We’ve been tossing edible flowers into the salad mixes all season long at Stonegate, no only for only for their loveliness (although here at fuss-pot farm, aesthetics are reason enough to do anything), but for taste and texture. The taste of most flowers subtly alludes to the flavor of the leaf, so the fragile inflorescence of arugula has a peppery bite, while the golden sprays of mustard flower is a three-alarm blaze of heat. Cucumber and squash blossoms are cool and mild and sweetly vegetal, and the blossoms of Asian greens are warm and tart.

When greens go to flower and seed, they usually give up their harvestable selves and get bitter, while vegetables move from flower to fruit, so blossoms are either a beginning, or a post mortem in the vegetable garden, a wedding or a funeral.

Flower Power, from top left: Nasturtium, whose petals and leaves have an aromatic tang; neon orange calendula – light and saffron-esque; mustard is a spicy inflorescent bite; squash blossoms are mild and celery-sweet.

Flowers have been enjoyed in foods for thousands of years:  Romans used to toss mallow, roses and violets into their pots; daylilies and chrysanthemums have been feasted on by the Chinese and Greeks for centuries. And capers, broccoli, and artichoke are all just unopened flower buds.

There are even flowers from the herbaceous border outside the walls of the vegetable garden that are fine to eat, including bee balm (Monarda didyma) 
garland chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum coronarium) 
cowslips (Primula veris) 
day lilies (Hemerocallis spp.) 
English daisy (Bellis perennis) 
evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) 
fuchsia (Fuchsia arborescens) 
gardenia (Gardenia jasminoides) 
and hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis).  Drop the trug and get out the platter!

Tossed with mixed looseleaf lettuces and mesclun greens, edible flowers add punch and beauty to any salad.

If you are a hapless sensualist, as I am, the more dimensional your experience of the natural world, the better. Why take something in with only one or two senses when they can all be indulged?  More is more.

There is something vaguely salacious and decadent about eating flowers, of course.  But that has more to do with culture and metaphor than fact. A flower in the mouth is unfamiliar; without the usual crunch of leaf or vegetable, it takes a moment for the tongue’s rough, exploratory curiosity to figure it out. But once you’ve a binged on a bouquet or two over the course of a season, as we do, the exotic mouth-feel is a gift.  –Mb

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June 24th, 2012
Trial and Terror

The swelter this past week brought out the crazies at the farm.  Woodchucks burrowed manically under fencing to trample and chomp through loose beds of kale, chickens lost their small minds and pecked incessantly at heirloom tomatoes, chipmunks tore heat-swollen plums from young trees in the orchard, mockingbirds stripped and gorged on ripe pearls red currant.

Weather extremes bring out the worst in all creatures, great and small.

Roses rallied, and sent out a sizzle of their own during the heat wave. Constance Spry, an old rambler with a heady whiff of myrrh, clambers over the orchard.

Roses rallied, and sent out a sizzle of their own during the heat wave. Constance Spry, an old rambler with a heady whiff of myrrh, clambers over the orchard.

Even a colony of mostly well-behaved Italian bees swarmed off in a cloud of thrumming wings to cooler pastures.  They ended up moving into a hollow in my neighbor’s faux-corinthian columns (they are Italian bees after all – were they pining for the Pantheon’s columns in Rome?).

No one prepares you for the forces acting against your farm, from absurd weather to the persistent and insatiable pressure of critters who think you’ve set a Whole Foods just for them ; it’s empirical trial and terror.

I’ve had to learn from my optimistic folly, and the more I learn the more I want to warn.  To that end, I have a half dozen eager farm volunteers coming to Stonegate throughout the season, from Italy, France, Germany, all primed to experience to agony and ecstasy of small scale organic farming.  They’re coming through an organization called WOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms), and will apprentice and learn for room and board.  Good for all.

Chickens peck and scratch in the orchard.  God forbid they develop an appetite for plums and currants!

Chickens peck and scratch in the orchard. God forbid they develop an appetite for plums and currants!

Ideally, everyone should have some sense of what it means to grow food from seed (that may be a necessary survival skill once the petroleum food economy collapses),  and have some rich organic dirt under their nails and the deep muscle memory of hoeing, tilling and weeding.

Farming builds strong, resourceful bodies, and feeds the spirit (I was once asked where I “worked out” and I said I didn’t, but I “worked, out” – meaning “outside” where the sweat and strain has meaning).

Bok Choy, Tatsoi, and mesclun greens neatly tucked into their loamy beds here at OCD farm.

Bok Choy, Tatsoi, and mesclun greens neatly tucked into their loamy beds here at OCD farm.

Organic farming is also an act of political conscience.  If, as Sylvia Breeland said, “How you eat changes how the world is used,” then WOOFers are interested in political change, to reversing the half-century old plague of proceesed industrial food and the various scourges of GMOs and acres of monoculture dripping with pesticides.

By volunteering on small farms like mine and making organic farming viable, WOOFers are changing how the world is used, one weed at a time.   –Mb

The radish harvest this season has been bountiful and, yeah, kind of beautiful too.  More of these multi-colored gems have been planted to keep up with the pretty

The radish harvest this season has been bountiful and, yeah, kind of beautiful too. More of these multi-colored gems have been planted to keep up with the pretty

The share this past week included yummy English cukes, edible flowers (mustard bloom too!), and pints of black currant.  I managed to get invited over to neighbor's (and CSA members) for a black currant clafoutis pie.  Words fail me.

The share this past week included yummy English cukes, edible flowers (mustard bloom too!), and pints of black currant. I managed to get invited over to neighbor's (and CSA members) for a black currant clafoutis pie. Words fail me.

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May 9th, 2012
Or•gan•ic (adj \ȯr-ˈgan-ik\)

We’ve been setting out young greenhouse seedlings for the last week – looseleaf lettuce, broccoli raab, luminous rainbow chard – and organizing them into perfect matrices on the farm; it’s the kind of hopeful symmetry that prevails in the Spring, before the sprawl of Summer growth turns order into succulent mayhem.

SGF May 2012

Italian Chiogga Beet seedlings, with their candy stripe centers, about to leave the greenhouse.

When you’re not spread out over acres of land, but are farming on limited ground,  your season is defined by meticulous planning and bio-intensive forethought: what can I plant here and harvest early before the space is succeeded by a later season variety?  What could I squeeze into the soft, useable dirt between taller stems, or companion plant so that there’s balance and harmony, not competition?

Of course, balance and harmony are fundamental to organic farming.  Organic asks that you take as much as you give, that you’re attentive to inherent cycles and rhythms, that you consider the farm as a macro organism where all the living parts function in service of the whole. But organic isn’t just a method and philosophy of growing food. The OED defines organic as “denoting a relation between elements of something such that they fit together harmoniously as necessary parts of the whole.”

And aren’t we all looking for lives that “fit together harmoniously,” for a sense of order and meaning, for some magical coherence at the end of the day?

Working with the land gives you some of that, it ties you in and proposes that you, in the words of ee cummings, “ask the more beautiful question” because “that’s where the beautiful answers lie.”  When I began to restore this property fifteen years ago, and stood looking at a cluster of worn-out buildings buried beneath bittersweet and at the menacing loom of wild and unruly trees, I started to ask those questions – what if we restored this, or added that, or moved this building here, and built one there, or started a farm?

SGF May 2012-2-2

Greenhouse seedlings of looseleaf lettuce ready for the great outdoors.

The answers have broadened the meaning of organic at Stonegate.  Very little that happens here is out of context:  the work I do as a photographer and writer is all shaped by my relationship with this place and vise versa. Working in magazines, books and television helps give purpose and meaning to the farm, and is an engine of its sustainability ( I’ve even grown my own props for food shoots!)

Some “necessary parts of the whole” lately are the publication of The Photo-Graphic Garden (Rodale, 2012), Urban Farms (Abrams, 2012), a lecture and book signing at White Flower Farm in Connecticut next week on “The Artistic Vegetable Garden,” and a exhibit at FloreAnt Gallery titled “Impermanence and Beauty in the Photographic Garden.” At the center of this media bustle is the farm, the sustainable heart that helps to make beautiful sense of it all.  –Mb

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April 21st, 2012
Yelp and Howl

They’re back.  Under the greenhouse, through the barn, into the woodpile.  Scraping and plundering about, eating all that’s new and green, making passionate, squealing woodchuck love in the middle of the night.

I was even jolted out of bed last week at two in the morning to what sounded like a chicken meeting the toothy  end of a fox or raccoon.  After a blind and bewildered stumble out to the coop, pellet rifle in hand, I made a quick tally, and all wattles were accounted for.  Then it sounded again, from underneath the barn floorboards: The horrible yelp and howl of woodchuck sex.

what, me worry?

What, me worry?

If this springtime ritual is that painful for them (truly a little death) why don’t they just stop breeding, or adopt a one-pup policy like the Chinese?   Works for me.

They actually tunneled under the greenhouse foundation and up into beds of March-planted seedlings recently.  Of course, they took out the much-coveted kale first; hopeful young shoots, barely into first leaf, gone.  Then the tender loose-leaf lolla rossa lettuce, about to be hardened off, gone. And, of course, my faltering humanity, gone.

I have to admit, I was impressed by their determination and insight.  How did they know the farm season begins in the greenhouse?  That this was nursery of wonders where seed was maturing into soft chloro-filled bites?

After finding their tunnel, I blocked it’s entrance with old bricks and rocks, which they handily excavated around.  I laid down wire and heavy terra cotta pots, which they gingerly pushed aside, with a varmint snicker.  Finally, I mixed two sixty pound bags on concrete, and poured the hole shut at both ends.  I’m just waiting to hear something from inside their cement tomb, like a Tell-Tail heart, or – God forbid – squeals of woodchuck ecstasy.

SGF 5-11-1220

Seedlings in the newly-fortified greenhouse, ready to fend off another pillage.

Woodchucks are as perennial and unflappable as weeds.  The more burrows you empty out each year, the more vacancy signs dance in their furry little heads.  Like sub-prime speculators, their waiting for the market to open up so they can settle in. Sprees like these can only send agricultural economies South, as a band hungry, ravenous woodchucks can easily undo you as a farmer.

For now, the greenhouse appears to be protected, and seedlings are thriving again, standing tall and brave in their refortified world.  In a few weeks, they’ll move out to live under an open sky of sun, wind and rain, safe behind fencing, as objects of insatiable, four-legged desire.    –Mb

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April 1st, 2012
How sweet they’ve been, the first days of Spring. Though March played with our sense of seasonal order, growling out like a temperamental lion, we harvested twenty pounds of honey this week; a sap of sweet, slow, amber translucence.

Our old school honey harvest meant using the slow drip method; letting gravity do its thing as open combs were warmed in front of the fire.

Our bees buzzed off sometime late in the season, so we feared the worst: That the honey stores had been plundered. But it seems our three Russian colonies swarmed like Cossacks, leaving empty hives and all of their hard-won honey.  So we’ve ordered Italian bees and queens this year. After all, a hive of matriarchal Italians is surely going to center around the making of food. Buon appetito for us!
It turns out beekeeping is as fraught with loss as anything else on the farm, the only constants seem to be the hives themselves. You don’t imagine a lot of neurotic bee keepers out there – one just can’t be type-A anxious and high-strung when working with all the unknowable quirks of the natural world. Hopeful resignation tends to reign. Bees have ideas of their own.

Newly-jarred honey, almost a gallon of it, glows on the window sill.

Because bees will travel far to find pollen, often beyond an organic oasis and up to seven miles from the hive, pesticides used on neighboring farms are a concern. For more than a decade, as bee populations around the globe have declined dramatically, pesticides have been thought to play a part in what’s become know as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).  Just last week, the New York Times reported on the increasing scientific consensus that neonicotinoids, or systemic pesticides that move through plant tissue and into their nectar and pollen, make bees more vulnerable to disease. These pesticides, rubber stamped by the influence-pedaled E.P.A, weaken the immune system of bees, mess with their sense of navigation, and stunt juvenile development.

A planet without bees is not just a planet without the miracle of honey: bees pollinate 30% of our fruit and vegetable crops. The imbalance will lead to increased consumption of petro-chemical grains and feed lot protein – already a scourge in our fast food nation.

If the vanishing bees are a warning, their decline may be prophetic. Monocultures made possible by corporate profiteers such as Monsanto, ADM, and Cargill will be all that’s left; acres of GMO produce dripping with lethal chemicals  It’s no wonder we’ve been kicked out of the garden by higher powers.

Einstein wisely said, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it,” and small organic farms are on a mission to change consciousness, one bee at a time.  –Mb

Oeuffington Post

Free range eggs from our flock of hardworking hens are available for pick up!  They’re in the create by the front door.  $3/Doz.

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March 15th, 2012
Notes from the Underground

It’s March, and most of the prevailing madness at Stonegate Farm these days is focused underground. Besides fretting over tender seedlings in the greenhouse, I’m preoccupied with soil: Top dressing, tilling, broad-forking, sampling. Managing the health and fertility of the land is a strange kind of rural hypochondria, particularly here at the OCD Farm (Obsessive, Compulsive Dirt Farm).

Composted horse manure and worms: the stuff that dreams are made on.

We’re obsessed with dirt because it is mysterious, with a deep and secret life of its own. It’s the most complex and abundant ecosystem on earth; a dark universe of fungi, bacteria and micro-organisms, all interacting with plant roots and rhizomes in a language that’s still arcane to science. In a spoonful of dirt, there are more than a million species of microbes, mostly unknown: a cosmos of dreams beneath your feet.

“I have spread my dreams under your feet / Tread softly because you tread on my dreams” said Yeats.

If I had any issues last season, they were largely subterranean, with soil lacking in certain trace elements or nutrients, with water-logging leading to root-rot on brambles in the orchard, with not having rotated my crops and therefore depleting the soil’s vitality.

Black currants catch a nitrogen buzz with a top dressing from the horse farm.

Of course, there’s always the usual flotsam the land heaves up in the thaw of Spring: bricks, metal scrap, cistern caps, tires, carriage linkages, not to mention the constant scree of glacial rock that lies  reliably just 10 inches below my topsoil.  There’s nothing quite as bone-shuddering as hitting a twenty-pound chunk of stone with the business end of a shovel.

It turns out, my farm was, in fact, never farmed.  The collection of 19th century outbuildings were all there to support the lifestyle of estate owners.  Carriage house, stable, ice house, manger, barn, gate house, greenhouse – all there to make life in the 1850s a pleasure for the patrician class.  The cows surely grazed, as did the horses, but the estate’s 35-plus acres were landscaped in a picturesque English style by contemporaries of Andrews Jackson Downing.  Meant to be meandered through by carriage, appreciated in evening jackets and jodhpurs, but never plowed under.

Rural Bavaria: Nobody does it better.

So I’ve been breaking new ground, and my metaphorical back, with my compulsion for agricultural order and fertility.  And this season in particular, after a Winter spent in the Bavarian countryside just south of Munich, where “ordnung muss sein” (order must be), I’m more determined than ever to reign in the wild and scrappy.  Bavaria, with its carefully cultivated farms and fields and charming villages, is postcard quaint; a place where the stewardship and care of agricultural lands is a communal act.  If ever there was an argument to be made for agriculture integrated into community, you’ll find it there.  If I achieve a fraction of what the Bavarians have accomplished here at Stonegate Farm, I’ll consider this whole OCD experiment a success.     -Mb

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October 23rd, 2011

In a muddy drizzle last week, we harvested the last of the oak leaf and lolla rosa lettuce, tilled under the remaining rain-stunted eggplant and peppers, and yanked out the tangled sprawl of tomatoes in the orchard.

The normally solemn end-of-season ritual was buoyed by some cranking iTunes, although “This is the End” by the Doors didn’t do much to lift the mood.

Antonia and Maren, Bavarian Gothic.

When I say “we” I mean my seasonal intern Maren and her friend Antonia, two city girls from Munich. When you’ve come of age on pavement, as I did, there’s something exotic about organic dirt. Not the urban kind, but the beautiful, complex soil one builds over years of sustainable farming.

So we wallow in it. We top-dress it with compost, we till in manure, we rake and coddle it into cake flour.  Winter will be here soon enough, and render it as hard and unyielding as stone.

Besides the Fall ritual of soil farming, we harvested some imperfect organic apples this week–blotched and mottled and beautiful. One antique variety, Hidden Blush, had a tart, rose-streaked interior.  Another, Melrose, was the size of a softball, with a complex acid sweetness.

The Downing orchard is planted with historic apples and pears that were cultivated more than 150 years ago by famed landscape architect, pomologist and Newburgh native Andrew Jackson Downing.  The orchard’s references to history and place are important to our mission here at Stonegate. Because the farm is on the National Historic Register, we’re intent on cultivating history as well, from antique apples to heirloom greens.

Some fruit this season was too far gone to be more than cider or chicken feed (five weeks of rain and two hurricanes saw to that!), but growing organic tree fruit will always be an unrequited affair.  As the Beatles said:  “The love you take is equal to the love you make.”

And the love we took from the farm this year was bountiful.  Thank you for taking part.     –Mb

WINTER EGGS: The Winter Egg Share begins this week.  CSA members can stop by anytime and pick up eggs on the front porch.  Please take only a half-dozen at a time, so there’s enough to go around, and latch the box when you leave.  Enjoy!

Organic Gardening magazine has a feature out this month on Stonegate Farm, called “The Accidental Farmer.”  Check it out at Organic or pick it up at the newsstand.

In case, god forbid, you can’t get enough, follow Us on Twitter at Stonegate Farm

ME-DIA: Latest comedy of air-ors: CBS Early Show and Regis & Kelly.

Contact Us: If you have any information you’d like to share, or comments, feel free to drop us a line: Stonegate Farm

Stonegate Farm

4 Stonegate Drive

Balmville, NY 12550

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September 26th, 2011
This Too Shall Pass

Hurricanes Irene and Lee came and went last month and ripped through the farm with blustery, sodden winds and a muddy swill of rain that’s still running down the drive.

Newly planted seeds of Fall arugula, snap peas, and mesclun greens were washed out of their beds, heading toward the Hudson.  Chickens stood out in the wind and rain, transfixed by the chaos, their pouffy feathers matted like leaves. Bees hummed in damp confusion around the hive.

Harvests have been bountiful, despite the rain, although the  heat lovers like tomato, pepper and eggplant are beginning to grumble.

The farm these days lies as saturated as a sponge mop. The soil seems to give way under foot, like pudding, its tight, nurturing purse forced open by relentless, pounding rain.  With all the water we’re getting, maybe it’s time to go hydroponic?

I was away on a book shoot in Maine, and was texted regularly by my neighbor assuring me that the farm hadn’t been swept off to Oz, and that none of our geriatric trees had tumbled out of the sky, although some are looking precariously frail; just a puff away from oblivion.  There’ll be some tough Kevorkian-esque  decisions to be made with the chainsaw, but safe open sky to follow.

Two white pines, in particular, are standing too tall and frail and barely fleshed with needles at the crown.  A few years back, a massive spruce fell in the middle of the night, it’s brittle bones splintering across our gate house roof like glass.  Only the gutter was damaged, but our tenants were jittery for months.

It’s a miracle that anything edible has put up with a month of relentless rain and hurricanes. True, the tomatoes have been reduced to puckered globs, and eggplant and pepper are hanging hard and obstinately unripe on their stalks. Nobody likes to get his feet wet, much less stand in water for weeks on end.  Bad for the posture.

These sweet Hungarian peppers have produced non-stop since July, even with their feet wet.

Blackberries, normally ready for harvest now, are still too tart for want of sun, unable to create their rich and complex sugars. And the muddy lettuce and mustard greens have been rain-flattened in their beds, without the strength to get up.

What a bore, to prattle on about weather!  But it matters more when you’re farming and feeding others.  If this is the new normal, I suppose the farm can either founder under increasingly erratic weather, or learn to suck it up.  As a true Darwinian, I think I’ll adapt.  There’s always aquaculture.  - Mb

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August 22nd, 2011

It’s been quite a star turn for tomatoes on the farm this season.  No blight, no gummy end rot, just loose, far-reaching tangles of sweet fruit splattered across the fencerow in the orchard.  Their indeterminate sprawl has been almost unseemly, shaming the rest of the farm with an insatiable appetite for sun and sweetness.
Seasonal intern Maren Rothkegel, from Munich, Germany, harvests cherry tomatoes before the Saturday a.m. CSA pick-up.
Tomatoes can make or break a farm season. When you’re left without, like we were two years ago when late blight was early and pernicious, you almost want to strike the set and start a tree farm.  Your CSA members, faced with a bleak, tomato-less Summer, solemnly collect their kale and cole crops, like martyrs.
How many ways can you prepare kale?  Let me count the ways.
But this season, the weather and varietal choices have conspired to deliver a bumper crop of both tomatoes and eggplant, which are in the solanaceae family.  After last season’s exasperating battle with flea beetles, we shrouded the eggplant with Agribon this year, a light, spun fabric made of recycled materials. It foils the beasties by physically blocking their voracious appetites.  It seems to have worked.  Just when I thought things on FussPot Farm couldn’t get tidier, I resorted to actually tucking in my beds, minus the hospital corners.

Sweet cherries in gumball orange, yellow and red.

Of course, all the Tuscan kale has been nibbled down to ungainly stumps by a wily and determined woodchuck, powdery mildew did away with my French cucumbers with one mouldering puff, and a flock of ravenous starlings ate an entire hedgerow of aronia melanocarpa berries that were just about to be harvested.  Sisyphus, you had it easy!
If I were half the farmer I’d like to be, I would be keeping an eye on the heirlooms that are thriving and putting out and would be saving their seeds to be planted next year. In theory, Darwinian adaptation can be accelerated a few generations by my meddlesome intervention. If I were to put theory into practice, the plants that do well on my parcel would be unnaturally selected, pandered to, and replanted.  Next year.
So small farming continues its metronomic give and take, it’s shock and awe. There’s never a dull moment, or a bland vegetable.  It’s both exasperating and exhilarating and, in the end, entirely worth doing.  And given one season of magical tomatoes, like this one, and the memory of all the blighted, forsaken fruit that came and went before disappears.  - Mb


July 18th, 2011

The long, slow fruition of all the heat longing solonacea, who sulked through June’s cool nights, has finally begun to show promise, as clusters of Sun Gold, Lemon Drop, and Black Cherry tomatoes have emerged jewel-like on sprawling indeterminate vines, and peppers and eggplant are standing tall above inter-planted lettuce.

Thalia, our seasonal intern, looking gourd-geous draped in a harvest of cucurbitae moschata.

We’ve been lucky with the weather, too, lately, which has been a reasonable mix of sun and shower, and with the help of hardworking farm hands.  Our intern, Thalia, who came all the way from Texarkana via Oklahoma, is a breed of young agri-ficionados who are not only committed to healthy, sustainable food culture, but to food justice as well: She volunteers at a local food bank feeding under-privileged communities. Her work on the farm this season, bopping around plugged into iTunes, tirelessly weeding and harvesting, has been invaluable. Now I’m hopelessly spoiled.

On a recent book project, I photographed urban farms around the country, and met some seriously passionate young farmers, determined to changed the world by changing how we eat. Just when you thought the planet was at a tipping point of wasteful indifference, a generation seems to have come along that cares more than we ever did.  I wanted to take them all back to the Farm in my carry-on.

Squash blossoms have found their way into the shares this season, and into fresh pastas and frittatas.  And you can wear them in your hair!

Asking for help on the farm did not come easily to me.  I’m not a natural delegator.  I suppose my father’s own frustration with raising chore-averse children has something to do with it. If you want something done, best to do it yourself, was his mantra.  And as a retired diplomat, he’s lived his life in the subjunctive, where desires are indirectly expressed, like a wish. But to delegate presumes a life lived in the imperative:  ”These are the weeds.  Yank them out.”

So I now get applications to intern at Stonegate from all over the country, through the  auspices of NOFA (Northeast Organic Farmers  Association), and have become a born-again delegator and mentor (is there a Jesus-fish equivalent when you’ve seen the light of hiring help?).  We’re even turning the old stable into worker housing. The groundswell of interest in organic, sustainable farming is remarkable, as is the character and values these kids possess. For farms and food, the future is undeniably now.  -Mb

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