“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.
Harvesting 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.
A 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.”
Tart 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
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.
Harvesting 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.
Satellites 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.
With 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.
Snap 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.
Last 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
“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.
Mustard 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.
Baby 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.
The 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.
Sprays 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
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.