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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.

SEPT BLOG -6189

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

iPick

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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