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June 18th, 2010

Burning Down the House


The woodchucks found their way under the fence and into the farm last week.  A whole family was picnicking out in a patch of sunlit mesclun and kale.  Your meclun and kale!  How dare they, and with such insolence!

So I went after them, wielding a hoe like Mr. McGregor on a rage against Peter Rabbit, only to watch them slip under the fence into a large woodpile.  A pile that, by sheer happenstance, I was about to burn the next morning.


The Hadahart trap, ignored as usual, despite crispy greens inside. Why crowd into the bodega when surrounded by a Whole Foods mega store?

At first light the following day, I lit up the pile like a pyre along the Ganges, sending the chucks off to visit Vishnu in a blaze of gory.  My PETA sympathies apparently up in smoke as well.  But there they were the next morning, not put out for a moment.  Either the burn pile was a Summer rental (Fire Island. Three Months. Cheap. Free Veggies), and they were in town for the work week, or these are new crits on the block.

When I first moved out of the city, where anything four-legged and furry that’s not a leash is a plague, the site of scurrying woodchucks was startling.  I was told they had do be dealt with swiftly and without mercy, otherwise huge destructive, orgiastic colonies would form beneath the house, turning foundation walls into love grottos and wiring into dental floss.

Wanting to show my ready-for-rural mettle, I devised plan A:  Set the Havahart (or in this case, Hadahart) trap, then drown the critter in a garbage can.  Plan A, Part 1 worked fine.  Chuck went in the trap, the doors slammed shut.  Part 2, however, resulted in a the trap sitting a third of the way out of the can, and the critter perched on high getting only a tail bath.  Sort of a bidet for varmints.  So the accused was instead lowered into a dark, brick-lined cistern on the property, where he swam about for a half hour before finally expiring.

Hearing him scratch against the cistern walls, trying to gain a last purchase on life was like something out of Poe. The sound haunted my psyche for weeks. And I swore - country bona fides on the line or not – I could no longer be a merciless, cistern-wielding angel of doom.

Where do we draw the line when deciding to dispatch with the small, unwelcome souls among us?  Is a mouse or a vole any less deserving of a full life of scurrying than its exponentially larger cousins?  The line drawn is at best arbitrary. A scratch in sand, smoothed by a random tide.  It seems ambiguity is the only certainty.


Chickens snacking on rose petals.  They’re productive and beautiful, so all’s forgiven.  Where do you think they get those fancy plumes anyway?

For years after, we’d catch woodchuck, skunk, possum, and coon in the Havahart and take them in the truck across the river to the Metro-North station parking lot, where they were released.  We figured with a mile-and-a-half of river between us, they’d just as soon take a train into Manhattan where they could grab dinner and show than slog it back across the tide to Stonegate.

So my recent relapse into mercilessness came as a shock to me.  But maybe I’m now trying to earn my agriculturalcreds, and like any farmer worth his salt or salsify, I have to manage with new prerogatives.  Perhaps they really did survive the blaze?  My humanity hopes so.  -Mb

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June 4th, 2010

Beetle Mania

Flea beetles began to make a loose veil of my eggplant and potato leaves this week, rendering tender shoots a skeletal gauze of their former selves.  This vegetal jihad against all plants in the solanaceae family (including potato, eggplant and tomato) is a fright.  The spring-loaded horrors have no organic pest control, so you stoop and squish, firmly between forefinger and thumb, until the offending speck is no more.

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Flea beetles the size of flax seed  feasting on potato leaves.  So destructive, and such a pleasure to squish!

Seems we’ve been discovered by the beasties.  From flea beetles to sawfly caterpillars to grazing woodchucks, my mixed greens have sent the neighborhood critters on a serious bender.

The two forces of evil acting against the best efforts of a small, sustainable organic farm are fungus and insects, the enemies of fruit and leaf. Our cultural practices here at Stonegate are all OMRI (Organic Materials Review Institute) approved; the occasional clover or purslane weed in your mesclun greens will vouch for that.  But we’re not about to roll over to an onslaught.

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Eggplant leaves rendered to a veil of their former selves, redefining Holy War.

I’ve been somewhat lax about control in the past, thinking I’d strike a balance between harvest and loss, but nature is not always so benign and measured, more of an extremist, really (witness last Summer’s Biblical rains and ensuing blight).  But if you build it, they will come (remember Field of (bad) Dreams?). So we spray lime sulfur to control the various fungi, kaolin clay to infuriate the insects, and fish emulsion to send the greens into a nitrogen orgasm.  If you’re ever here right after a spray, it will either smell of low tide or last week’s eggs fooyong.

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Young apples powdered up like Louis XIV with Kaolin clay, an organic, topical insect barrier. Makes thebeasties’ bellies hurt.

According to nature, Agriculture is highly unnatural.  A farm is no Darwinian paradigm.  If it were, we’d all be very successful weed farmers (no, not the kind under the grow lights in the basement). We coddle and protect our fragile crops.  A farm without the conceit of intervention, order and control would simply no longer be. There’s no détent to be bartered between us and our enemies. It’s strike or be stricken.

So I find myself out on the farm in the wee, small hours before the heat and humidity rise, pinching tiny, lacquer-backed flea beetles between my fingers and loving every control-freakin’ minute of it.   –  Mb

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