June 21st, 2011
Come Hail and High water
These past few weeks, as temperatures swayed madly back and forth, any syncopation between plant and planet seemed momentarily lost. The mercury rocketed to record heights, then fell just as hard. Ninety-six degrees segued into frigid slurries of rain and surreal ice storms.

Hens panted in the heat, their beaks slung open like secateurs; bees splashed themselves across hives in cooling desperation; greens secretly conspired to bolt.

Cooling showers have given the greens something to croon about.  They’re just singing’ in the rain.

June is when the cool, light whistle of Spring is vanquished by the onset of Summer. You know it at night, when the ring-toned persistence of tree frogs give way to the rasp of katydids and crickets.  Or when the grass sharpens against soft soles and bluestone burns.

Weather is a subject of constant, fretful speculation on the farm. But the violent weather events across the country this season have kept things in perspective; after all, we haven’t been subsumed by rising Hudson River floodwaters, siphoned helplessly up into the clouds by tornados, or rendered to cinder and ash by wildfires…yet.

The only time we used to see our neighbors was after a storm-spawned power outage.  We’d  forfeit life’s comforts like the rest, but because we also have wood stoves at the Farm for heat and a hand-pumped well for water, we can get along like nineteenth century homesteaders when the lights go out.

Our immediate neighbor used to come by if the outage lasted more than a few days.  “My wife wants to flush” he would wearily mumble, as he manually filled up a bucket at the well pump.  We once had a neighborhood pot-luck supper during a long black-out, where we all tried to cook on the wood stove in the barn before resorting to crackers and cheese by torchlight.

Perspective seems to be the inherent measure of success in anything: how you perceive the “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” shapes the world you live in. Farming prescribes that your view is long, and that your measure of success is tempered by allowing forces beyond your control to play out. So we take, and talk about, the wiles of Weather, with all of its exasperating uncertainty.

Despite all the fuss over weather, roses paid no mind and busted out in glorious bloom this Spring.

The only constant seems to be the CSA members showing up at the farm on Saturday mornings for their shares, grateful for some predictably good greens.  While we’ve built a working farm, we’ve also built new community. Transpose the acronym CSA, and you get ASC: Agriculture Supporting Community, one of the less hyped  virtues of joining a local farm.  As neighbors come together around a common cause or interest, communities form.

A new study out of SUNY New Paltz’s Center for Research, Regional Education and Outreach, or CRREO,  on the future of agriculture in New York State, has found that small farms and CSAs, besides strengthening the state’s agricultural, environmental and economic viability, help to build stronger communities. According to the study, people involved in CSAs often participate more in their community, volunteer more, and are more politically active.

So when a CSA member ambles down the road to the farm, comes by for a carton of eggs, or just wants to see what’s growin’ on at Stonegate, those are the seeds of community. It’s too easy in an age of instant, downloadable everything, to live isolated in a neighborhood of strangers.  The climate may have destabilized, but strong, dynamic communities are its counterpoint.  -Mb

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May 24th, 2011
Boyz in the Woods
There’s a tangled stretch of forest along the Hudson River, flanked on both sides by a rural cemetery and an imposing power plant, where I go to release roosters that have out-crowed their welcome at the Farm.

Danny Boy, strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage.

Danny Boy, a flamboyant , lustful dandy, whose crow had matured to an ear splitting shrill, was the latest cock to walk. We boxed him up with some scratch and straw for the road, and took him on a two mile ramble to a release point in the shadow of the power plant’s massive stacks (apparently, Danny, the pipes were calling).  He hopped out of he truck, and without so much as a parting glance, made for the scrub. Maybe he hooked up with some of the Farm’s other ne’er-do-well fugitives who’ve made camp in these woods.  I imagine them all hanging out in a rough covey, smoking cigars, trash-talking Stonegate, and plotting my comeuppance.

A year ago I went to set loose a bantam black frizzle rooster that had a habit of launching into my son like a feathered football, talons blazing.  As I pulled off the road and opened the truck door, ready to release, a figure emerged from the woods. I quickly pulled my anxious cockerel back into the cab, and the figure did the same. Turns out it was my marathon-running neighbor who’d stopped for a pee break. We were both rattled when caught in flagrante with our boys out.

The truth is, I just can’t take the crowing.  It cuts right through my brain like some avian scalpel. Roosters are eye candy, to be sure, but also a sonic ear-sore. This is where my hard-wired urban DNA falters, where I’d rather hear a garbage truck at 4:00 a.m. than a rooster crow. Try as I might, I’m just not 4-H enough (I don’t think yelling “shut the H up” repeatedly counts).

A friend with goats and chickens and horses usually pulls me aside when we have dinner at his place and proudly lets me know – out of his children’s earshot – that we’re devouring one of his hapless bucks or chickens he’d just butchered (I always check to make sure the horses are accounted for). He has his farm-to-table merit badge for meat, which I secretly envy.

Quince in flower in the orchard.  We’ll settle for beauty in bloom, not blood.

Even among small farm foodies, there’s a hierarchy:  Heirloom seed savers vs. seed buyers, double diggers vs. topsoil tillers, preservers vs. seasonal eaters, animal butchers vs. coddlers, goat milk teat squeezers vs. the rest of us. Everyone has his own sustainability threshold.

A visit with food activist and urban farmer Novella Carpenter at her farm in San Francisco last Fall raised the sustainability bar even higher.  Every critter and cucurbit on her property was destined for the table: rabbits, goats, piglets, ducks. She made me feel like small farm charlatan, with no blood beneath the nails.  I eat meat, after all, shouldn’t I harvest it?  And if I’m not doing meat to teat, am I somehow not measuring up?

The orchard hens are grateful for my aversion to the on-site abattoir, and maybe even for Danny’s departure. Perhaps the loss a preening, crowing Lothario is a relief.  No more being taken by the scruff every morning and subjected to the tremor and spasm of an oversexed male. They seem to be carrying on fine without him, and since I don’t speak chicken, their pining would be lost on me. The henhouse flutters forth, with all inhabitants content to putter and scratch in the dirt, just like me.   – Mb

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April 11th, 2011
The Lovely Bones

My faithful Troy-Bilt tiller, Spiny Norman, is having his engine rebuilt this week.  While the Wheelhorse tractor, which rambled over a few too many stumps last season, has a cracked spindle on its mowing deck, and the greenhouse has three panes of storm splintered glass that need replacing.   I seems I need to set up a triage on the farm.  The thing about older machinery is that it’s worth fixing, worth rushing to the ER (Engine Repair?) for treatment.  Like organic farming versus chemical farming,  good tools presuppose a long-term relationship, not a one-night-stand with plastics and pot metal.

Bones and buildings in Early Spring, before the growth hormones kick in.

Bones and buildings in Early Spring, before the growth hormones kick in.

I used to expect my tools to put up with me and my casual disregard for their well-being:  “Did I leave you out in the rain again?  I’m sorry.  Suck it up.”  But I’ve since learned the hard way to be mindful and patient.  I’m a parent, after all.

I’m not into small engine repair.  Dirt I don’t mind, but all of the petro-gunk that clings to engines and fuels internal combustion has no appeal. I’m partial to external combustion, to the heat of topsoil as it arouses seeds to germination.  I have a neighbor who’s a genius with all things petroleum based, a grease monkey to my dirt monkey.  He tinkers while I till, and keeps me in working machinery, a must-have for farming unless you’re Amish and have seven plain-clothed children who are chore-bound to help out. My kids harvest eggs and tend a few flowers, but it’s all moi after that.

Hundreds of seeds have been planted in the greenhouse, starting their miraculous journey from speck to splendor.

Hundreds of seeds have been planted in the greenhouse, starting their miraculous journey from speck to splendor.

And as much as I love the farm in the full swing of the growing season – in the swelter and hum of midsummer – there’s a moment in early April before seedlings have begun to push up through the soil, an anticipatory delight, when there’s nothing to tend or fret over or weed. The farm’s form is clear, its lovely bones spelled out, its undressed structures waiting to be loosely draped with beans, cukes, squash and tomatoes.

I pick through the soil, which has been coughing up rocks in a consumptive heave of frost and thaw in beds that I was certain were finally stone-free. The tilled earth, before being knotted and bound by weeds, is a relief, as are the vines-less cucumber and squash trellises, the short Winter-stalled grass, the absence of insects. All of the cold season’s fitful tantrums have passed , and the farm seems to be holding its breath.  Then March continues on into April (it snowed on the first, no joke), and instead of going out like a lamb, it sent Spring on the lam, a fugitive from the farm and its desire to unfold and grow again.

There will be a lot to savor this season, including some hard to find heirlooms, like the serpentine Italian squash Trombo D'Albenga.

There will be a lot to savor this season, including some hard to find heirlooms, like the serpentine Italian squash Trombo D'Albenga.

Only the greenhouse is a refuge from erratic Spring weather, where hundreds of seeds have begun their miraculous journey from speck to vegetal splendor.  There will be much to savor this season:  Mereled Rattlesnake snap beans, Mexican Sour gherkins, serpentine Tromba D’Albenga squash, Lemon Drop tomatoes, sweet paprika peppers, purple Barbarella eggplant.

Happy Spring!   – Mb

As he has planted, so does he harvest; such is the field of karma.  ~Sri Guru Granth Sahib

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March 14th, 2011
Honey, I’m home

The new hive supers and brood boxes arrived this week, sent in a backbreaking UPS shipment from Brushy Mountain Bee. Along with a smoker, protective clothing, and a Spring order for sixty thousand Italian bees, we’re getting serious about honey.

Ora pro no-bees.  Hive frames scattered with lifeless bees, huddled around their honey stores.

Ora pro no-bees. Hive frames scattered with lifeless bees, huddled around their honey stores.

Last season’s colony rallied valiantly against the cold, but the brutal, permafrost Winter this year proved too much for them, and they succumbed. Their stores of honey exhausted, and their thousand fold wing-beats unable to keep the hive at a survival temperature of 94 degrees, they died of exposure and starvation. In December, the hive seemed to be humming along. Bees that were terminally exhausted had clambered out and perished in the snow, which they’re predisposed to do (they’re fussy that way), and I watched workers occasionally cleaning out the hive near the entrance.

All seemed well until mid-January, after a week in the single digits, when the humming and cleaning stopped. I’m not sure If the bees were Neapolitan or from the Italian Alps, but trying to raise internal temps by almost one hundred degrees would take one hell of a furnace, no matter what your origin.

Chickens peruse the frozen food aisle in the orchard for thawing grubs and worms.

Chickens peruse the frozen food aisle in the orchard for thawing grubs and worms.

When I opened the hive, all of the honey stores were exhausted, and I found a tight cluster of lifeless bees huddled in a sphere around their queen, who seemed to have died on the throne. The bees had needed more protection from the elements, more routine care, and I felt as though I had failed them. Any success in farming is always guarded and qualified, tempered by the humbling reality of caring for living things.

So we’re starting over. In fact, as I was assembling and painting the new hives, a few curious bees showed up and started inspecting the bundles of wax frames. They’re from a small colony that swarmed last season and took up residence high inside the wall of our pool porch. Like real estate speculators, they figure it’s a buyers market, and the porch wall is no match for a brand new duplex.

The new hives will be placed out in the Southeast corner of the orchard, where the glacial snow has finally retreated and the hens are now out and about on the sotted earth, looking to scratch up a thawed worm or two.

New hives waiting for assembly.  There will be three new colonies this year of roughly sixty thousand bees.

New hives waiting for assembly. There will be three new colonies this year of roughly sixty thousand bees.

The farm looks a bit scrappy this time of year, not quite camera-ready, with the swill of Spring mud, the storm scattered branches, the gray wall of leaf-less trees. I feel the onset of that seasonal impulse to regenerate, to make my world good and green again.

In a few weeks, seedlings will be started, one or too hens will get broody and begin set on a clutch of eggs, and Spring onions will pierce the earth with their soft, aromatic spears. All the frustration of Winter, like the interminable snow, will have faded to exuberant green.

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February 27th, 2011
The Line in Winter

It’s hard to conjure green in January. While it dominates the landscape for most of the year, in mid-winter it is a fugitive from the cold, hidden beneath a thick blanket of snow. We’ve just had our third major blizzard of the season here at Stonegate Farm, and only the fence lines now mark the faint contours of productive land.

The chore-worn path to the coop marks the

daily routine of ritual and care.

Snow transforms not only the visual shape and color of the farm, but it alters our behavior as well.  In Winter, we are deliberate. Our days are marked by the lines we make in the snow between outbuildings: feeding, filling water, warming. The woodpile, the coop, the greenhouse, the barn are all tended to. Our chore-worn paths mark daily routines and the ritual of care.

The fence lines that neatly define the perimeter of the farm are the only indication of productive land.

Most of our paths through life are more circuitous and indirect, affected by circumstance. Starting a farm for me was an indirect line, a scribble in the margins of an established career, but it has helped me to discover something fundamental that was lacking: finding purposeful work that’s connected and deeply rooted to place.  If, as John Kabat-Zinn said in his meditation on everyday life, “wherever you go, there you are,”  then I am here, and plan to stay.  Planting an orchard or building barns presumes longevity, after all.

Out in the snow, the footprints of deer and rabbit and cat are present, as is the random scurry of a vole. The finches and sparrows perch like quarter notes in the limbs of crabapples, whose ice-bound fruit is pecked at. The hives hum faintly as bees cluster for warmth. They too have their winter routines.

While Winter is a stern editor of possibilities, routines are sometimes broken by chance encounters with the unexpected:  An old maple, its branches burdened with snow, succumbs in the middle of the night, taking down a stretch of fence line;  the alarming sight of female worker bees, who expired keeping their precious queen warm, scattered in stiff curls on the snow outside the hive.  Even hoof prints along the orchard fence, where deer make their habitual circuit each night, seem deeper and more clustered, as though they’ve begun to nose the the perimeter of the orchard with curiosity and hunger. They could strip the bark off an entire planting of young fruit trees in one fatal, ravenous binge.

The chickens don’t get out much in winter. They don’t like the frost biting at their feet, and with nothing to scratch but snow, there’s not much point.  May as well hang out in the coop, lay a few eggs, crow and squawk a bit, fight over a perch.  I’ll come out and throw them some scratch, or freshen up their bedding with new straw, harvest eggs for the weekly egg share.  I could be the most exciting thing to happen in their day, and that’s not saying much.  At night, the coop glows like an ember with its 200 watt warming light, and inside the chickens are fluffed up and roosting in their brightly feathered duvets.

It’s up tails all as the hens try to make sense of snow.

Before Spring turns down the bed of snow, the boot-stitched lines that mark the back and forth of winter work and the hours of obligation will widen, as will our ambitions.  We know how the growing season will overwhelm us with possibility and choice making.  For now, the winter simplifies, letting our ambitions hibernate too.                    – Mb

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October 20th, 2010
Autumn Sonata

October 20th, 2010

The growing season has begun its slow and certain ebb from the farm, and in an almost absurd panic to inhale as much green as possible before a winter of chlorophyl privation, I find myself grazing in the beds like a ruminant. Not on all fours, mind you.  More like a vegan biped with opposable thumbs.

Floribunda roses have unfolded the last of their delicate blossoms, and the sergeant cherry, flamed to brilliant orange, rallied back from its near-death experience.

I’m in among the greens in the late afternoon, and after picking out the last stubborn weeds of the season, and straightening out rows where soil had spilled onto sod, I begin to forage.

I eat the tender inner blades of Toscano Kale right off their ungainly, palm tree stalks.  Their leathered, astringent flavor is full of life, but challenging. I feel like I’m chewing tobacco.  If a spittoon were within sight, or a dugout, I might take aim, but instead I opt for a stalk of rainbow chard. It’s crisp and nutty and mild and puts me back in neutral.

I pull the last of the pole beans from their top-heavy tangle of vines. The sweet snap of flavor is delicious and fun, almost unseemly. Soon I’ve turned the trellis inside out to get at every tender pod. Only an encounter with raw mustard greens sobers me up. Mustards are heat all the way through, from tongue tip to epiglottis. They are the swaggering jalapenos of the leaf world.

I grab some of the last Sun Gold cherry tomatoes to put out the blaze. Their boundless growth has been checked by the cold, so the heat-sweetened flavor is only a suggestion now. I end the forage with arugula and nasturtium, both with their own take on savory: Arugula has a warm, peppery intensity, while nasturtium’s heat is more complex and perfumed; liked the foreign language version of a savory, where you need subtitles to understand why on earth you’re eating a flower.

Savoy spinach is under wraps in anticipation of a late Fall harvest.  Mini hoops made of box-store EMT pipe covered with Remay fabric may add a month or more of growing time.

This close affinity with the food you eat is one of the true pleasures of farming. Only by taking it all off and farming in the altogether could I get any closer to my food-shed. In fact, my wife and I were advised to do just that when we started growing here, as a way to determine microclimates of warmth and cold with our own more sensitive parts. For those of you eating our food, you’ll be pleased to know we never did take on the Book of Genesis approach to horticulture.

This kind of raw grazing is a fleeting grace in the Fall garden.  Soon, only the stalwart kale and those greens given a reprieve from frost with a row cover will be left standing.

In March, winter will have seemed a bleak eternity, and this moment of heightened intimacy on the farm, when you’re eating as fresh and local and true as possible, will have slipped into some lovely, unreachable place.

Thank you for joining us this year.  – Mb

A Few Good Men/Women: The stable has been converted into living space for guests or for interns.  We may be head hunting for a hard-working and capable farm hand or two for next season, so if someone is on your radar, send their info along.

Barn Concert Buzz: Thanks to all of you who showed up for Jen Clapp and Todd Giudice. They put on a great show in the barn.  For more, hit their sites  Jen Clapp.com , Todd Giudice.com.   We’ll sent out a blast next time the barn doors are about to rattle.

All photos ©2010 matthewbenson.com

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September 26th, 2010
Great Egg-Spectations

The orchard hens have started to lay their pale blue and almond brown eggs as promised. I’ve been finding them tucked here and there under a pear or quince tree, or scattered beneath the brambles, but mostly in the nesting boxes as planned. There’s a large, antique porcelain decoy egg for encouragement, and plenty of praise when they relinquish.

Eggs from the orchard, in shades of earth and sky, have begun to delight us all.

But there was scolding as well last week.  When I was away, they flew the coop into the lettuce greens and began to unravel the beds into loose stitches of green.  The lettuce, thick-sown in early September, is just coming into full leaf, so to find them scratched out and flattened by plundering fowl was exasperating.

They will get into all and everything, of course: raspberries, blackberries, tomatoes.  I’ve watched them leap 3 feet in the air to snatch a raspberry, or balance on a tightrope of orchard wire to snack on currants, or peck incessantly through fencing to reach a tomato. They will also decide, without much discretion, that your planting of Fall arugula is a fine spot to take an afternoon siesta, so you find your coddled greens flattened here and there by the imprint of a settled hen.

Blackberries, swelling over the orchard fence on long, armored canes, haven’t escaped the notice of the insatiable hens.  They will find a way.

I haven’t had the heart to forward news of the damage to my wife’s German uncle, a doctor who visited this Summer and worked meticulously every morning in the beds of greens, picking out late summer weeds one at a time, as though cleaning a wound.  The farm has never looked as healthy and well cared for it did in late August.

The hens may not know a weed from a-rugula, but little loss of green is a small price pay for the eggs we’re now getting. Compared to a supermarket dozen, and to the USDA’s nutrient data on commercial eggs, our orchard roaming hens produce a vastly superior product. Their natural, free-range diet–including seeds, berries, insects, and greens, along with grain–results in eggs with far less cholesterol and saturated fat, and much higher levels of vitamin A, vitamin E, beta carotene, and omega-3 fatty acids. Is it any wonder they taste better?

Supermarket birds, even those labeled “free range” and “organic,” are usually fed a compromised diet of soy, corn and cottonseed meal, laced with additives, and have limited or no access to the outdoors.  If fresh eggs from the home or farm are not available, pasture-raised are the next best option.

When the child of a CSA member was in the coop last week as an egg as smooth and blue as beach glass was being laid, she marveled at the beauty of it.  In that moment, the value of running a small farm was being paid forward a generation or two.  –Mb

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September 13th, 2010
Clutching Hope, Cultivator in Hand

September has settled in on the Farm as a welcomed reprieve from August’s searing heat, and we’ve been busy planting Fall greens – cutting lettuce, arugula, broccoli raab, savoy spinach, bok choy. All of them holding out the fragile promise of an extended, bountiful season. We may get lucky and have a balmy Fall (we are in Balmville after all!), or be dashed to vegetal purgatory by an early frost.


A thinned bed of Red Komatsuna, a cool-season Asian mustard green, or bok choy, that’s delicious in salads or stir fry. We planted it when the lettuce was still too hot and bothered to germinate.  For a few recipes, see below.

Nature is a temperamental master. We’re all Pandoras, of course, clutching to hope with cultivator in hand. There would be no growing without the folly of wishful possibility. Every viable seed has a wish in its DNA. It wants that delicious, life-giving cocktail of dirt, water and light to set it loose upon the world.

In the wild, mercurial nature settles the score, and plants thrive or falter as conditions allow. On the Farm, however, conditions are created to maximize odds of survival.  And as seedlings push their hopeful green leaves up from the dirt, full of potential fullness, most are quickly dispatched as we thin the beds.

It’s one of the most Machiavellian chores on the farm. No matter how careful you are when planting seed, particularly tiny dust-in-the-wind lettuce seed, overseeding is routine, and a type of insurance against spotty germination, so unwanted seedlings need to be culled (put to sleep, bumped off, sent to the green beyond). Seedlings that will be allowed to grow into maturity are spared, and competing siblings that have sprouted around them are yanked out with a quick flick of thumb and index finger.“Now I have become Death, the destroyer of Worlds”indeed.


Cutting lettuce seedlings thinned to conformity and order. We are near West Point, after all.  Ten-hut!

Like their carbon cousins, trees, too, need to be thinned.  Our property, once a forty acre estate landscaped in the picturesque style of the mid-nineteenth century, has an abundance of magnificent specimen trees suitable for an arboretum. But decades of neglect, and no thinning of competing weed trees, has weakened most of the green giants. The forest’s relentless, unmanaged vigor has been its own undoing.

It has fallen upon me – God forbid not literally! – to thin the trees to a manageable few, not only for their own health, but for the health of the Farm. I love trees and have been known to hug them, grope them even, but shade is the enemy of most annual vegetables (excepting lettuce and few others), so this Fall more trees will be come down, destined for the wood pile.

When the wood stove in the barn is sending out its warmth this Winter, and I’m just finishing off the last of the delicious Fall lettuce, I’ll most certainly be grateful for the trees and seedlings that made that moment possible.  –Mb

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August 13th, 2010
Work is Love Made Visible

My wife’s supercilious grandmother used to tell me I had peasant blood, which I took as a compliment.  Better an honest, hardworking peasant than a soft-palmed scoundrel.  Good, physical work, with something to show for it besides tight abdominals (a bountiful harvest, say) is an act of alignment and sometimes even exaltation. It ties us back to the order of the natural world.  Work is what the wild things do–all day long, for food, shelter, survival, maybe even joy.

Last week’s bountiful harvest, the love made visible by work.

Growing food for others is a physical act. “Such hard work!” they say. Yes, but how fulfilling, how joyful. “The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it,” said Ruskin.

We have become more capable, more patient, more resourceful, more humble. Work on the land develops deep connective tissue with simple purpose. Something we’re in great need of in an age of tweets and texts.

I bought a new/old tractor for the farm this year. It’s seen plenty of hard work, and it’s in its forties, so we’re peers.  It’s throaty, cast iron rumble is reassuring. No squeaky plastic or pot metal here.  No imported parts. It was built somewhere in the Midwest, back when industry had integrity, and work wasn’t just virtual bustle. It rambles across the property, making a clean cut in the orchard, indifferent to the carpet of twigs and small stumps.

A morning of virtual housekeeping, such as answering emails from clients, or prepping for a shoot, is usually balanced by an afternoon of real physical work, of which there’s always plenty. Without exertion of some kind, my time seems incomplete. I need to feel used up at the end of the day.

We don’t move anything unless it weighs a thousand pounds, the New York Times quoted us saying more than ten years ago when they did a feature on our efforts to restore Stonegate (see House Proud) .  Clearly work was not an obstacle.  After an urban upbringing, among worlds others had created, I needed to build. I needed to move mountains.  I needed to see what I could become by it.
Interiors of the new coop.  There was plenty of sustainable re-use of materials, and a little art for inspiration.

So with new coop now completed in the orchard, my sweet Copernican universe, with the farm at the center of all things and us in perpetual orbit around it, seems momentarily balanced.  I can stand back from the work and feel its value and worth to the farm, despite the near heat stroke hours it took to build.

Hens out for an early peck and scratch in the orchard.

The laying hens have taken to their new digs without a lot of fuss and feather. Even the prodigal pullet rejoined the flock, although at the bottom of the pecking order. They’re now ranging happily in the orchard, tilling and fertilizing the soil, devouring pests, making their most magical eggs. Working hard, without a second thought.  -Mb

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August 6th, 2010
To Get To The Other Side

The day we decided to resettle the chickens to the other side of the farm began clear and lovely: the luster of the previous night’s rain still visible in the grass, the air luminous and warm.  I weeded early in the orchard and stole a few productive hours before heat and swelter took my energy hostage. The day before, the farm seemed to exist only to absorb the sky, to take in its rain like a sieve. The sky on resettlement day was unburdened by clouds or rain, punctuated instead by temperatures already in the 90s.


Coop and cupola, separated by a century and a half, now occupy the same aesthetic space. Ambivalent chickens just want a roof over their heads.

It was high time to furlough the young hens. They would be freed from their tight hot quarters in the Hell’s Kitchen garden, and moved three at a time to their new coop.  The trip from the kitchen garden to the orchard is a few hundred feet, but to the hens—who had never known the flap of freedom—the journey was pure trauma.

Each hen had to be blindly grabbed through the coop door, and whatever I got my hands on was how they were removed (foot, wing, thigh, tail, giblet), squawking as though about to be slain. They were put into a box and carried to the new hen house.

My first instinct was to excite them about their new space, like any good chicken realtor:  “Look at all these windows, and the closets.  Plenty of space to park your eggs, and room to scratch.  Have you seen those roosts?”  But instead they chose to lie low in the box, head tucked under wing as though resigned to the certainty of a swift end. It took turning the box upside down and shaking them out to get them to check out their new home.

The coop was modeled after the cupola on the barn, with its carpenter gothic detail and pyramidal roof.  When the farm was built in the late 1850s, the Gothic Revival period was in full fancy in the Hudson Valley.  Its advocates claimed, like their gothic predecessors, that steep gables, vertical battens, and skyward finials brought the dwelling closer to the vault of heaven, so as to almost scrape the stars.  All this is lost, of course, on a chicken.

Chickens love routine, and are ambivalent about architecture. To them, any change is loss, even the good changes.  What they covet is the daily pattern language they’ve learned since cracking out of the egg.  Give them repetition, monotony even, and they seem content.  One hen was so put out by the change of venue that she took flight, choosing the perils of the wild wood over unfamiliar routine.  She returned a fallen woman, ready to join the showgirls at La Cage.


Free at last,  Free at last!  The hens take to the orchard and frolic over worms and dirt

After a few days of house arrest, the young hens were set loose upon the orchard.  At first the vast, open sky bewildered them, but they quickly acclimated and before long were actually frolicking (when was the last time you frolicked?). They soon headed down the long alleé of quince and plum to the thicket of blackberries, where they poked and scratched and left thorny brambles between them and the circling red tails.

We’ve lost a few hens to hawks in the past, and their swift, ominous shadows and piercing cries are embedded into a hen’s survival DNA.  My children have witnessed a strike and kill, and after invoking The Lion King, the circle of life, and unfledged hawklings desperately needing a meal, they seemed perfectly at peace about it.  For the chickens, now calling the gothic coop home, the further away from the vault of heaven, the better. – Mb

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July 16th, 2010
Helter Swelter
As the Hudson Valley and much of the Northeast simmered in the unrelenting, record-breaking heat last week, the farm managed to slake itself in companionable shade.  With varietals inter-planted to protect each other from sun and thirst, they were far less put out than we. Eggplants (loving the heat, no SPF here) shaded radicchio, cucumber trellises sheltered tender lolla rosa lettuce, peppers took care of loose-leaf Red Sails, and towering squash cooled carrots.


The loose, lustrous heads of Italian radicchio di Chioggia are inter-planted among the Rosa Bianca eggplant, to the benefit of both: The radicchio keeps the eggplant roots moist, while the eggplant shades the heat-tender leaves of the radicchio.

We don’t grow a lot of dirt at Stonegate. We plant, inter-plant, succession plant, companion plant, Robert Plant.  Dirt is inefficient. If the natural world were allowed to prevail over the imposition of agriculture, there would be no dirt. Every bit of soil would be colonized by something green, seeking purchase and life. A walk in the forest will bear witness to that.

But even with our careful planning, our world was certainly put out by the swelter. We watered twice daily.  We irrigated the orchard.  Our sleep was fitful. Last season, the sound of incessant rain on the roof kept me up at night, anxious that the farm was rotting in a wet slurry of soil and muck. This year, the relentless hum of the air conditioner (a window unit we only pull out during heat waves) has meant shallow, drought-fearing sleep.

And the lawn, which is never watered, went from supple green to scorched earth in a matter of days, its brittle blades piercing the tender soles of children as they scampered across it to find relief in the pool. I could even smell the lawn burning, like someone lighting up a joint.  Now I know why they call it smoking grass.


Even the cats inter-plant themselves among the beds, where the soil is cooler and the shade dappled. “Hey, I’m in chard here.”

So as the climate becomes more and more unstable, more manic-depressive, we may as well throw out the Old Farmer’s Almanac. Its reliance on past weather patterns and cycles seems moot.  The New Farmer’s Almanac might be summed up in a few words: Be prepared for anything.  Frogs, hail, locusts. The planet has always been physically bipolar, now its climate is as well.

Farming longs for some level of predictability; it wants to be scripted, thought out and measured. Planning is at its core, and maintenance is the drum beat.  Now I’m being told the USDA Zone map is even being redrawn to adjust for climate change. Should I be ordering seed for kumquats and Ponderosa lemons?

When the rain finally arrived by week’s end, its cool, wet relief was almost surreal. At first it drummed on the bone-dry ground, which sent the water pooling and running like mercury. But soon the land was guzzling every drop in delicious, life-giving gulps. Excuse me while I kiss the sky.  -Mb

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July 8th, 2010
Café au Lay

My new hens have outgrown their garret of a starter coop, and have begun to crowd the outside pen like a Parisian café. That’s café, not CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feed Operation), although conditions are rather similar, minus the threat of a looming hereafter. I hear them squawking over food and drink, or the best sidewalk table.

They’ll soon be moving to a new arrondissement in the orchard, where I’ve built a rather ornate gothic revival villa for them, in keeping with the rest of the property. The naming has begun even before the roof is on: The Café Au Lay. Coop de Ville. Das Coop. Why chickens bring out the cheap wordplay in us is a mystery. We just can’t stop ‘till we get an oeuf.


The New Coop will house 25 Maran and Ameraucana hens in great style.
While I was compound mitering the pagoda roof on the coop, my children and friends were in the orchard below, harvesting black currants. Their little hands, pulp-stained to a deep purple, picked the fruit in delicate clusters and arranged them in one pint boxes. This year is our first full harvest, with last year’s having been diminished by the ceaseless rain.

Black currants are certainly an acquired taste. Eating them fresh supposes a longing for complex tartness. The first bite through their supple, sun-blackened flesh is almost sweet, while the finish is much darker. All of life’s complexity in one bite. The Europeans have used them for centuries to flavor jams, tarts and juices, and the French transform them beautifully into cassis.


Daughter Daisy and best friend Hannah harvest black currant. Who needs a Brueghel painting when a canvas comes to life before your eyes?

But beyond flavor, black currants contain the fruit phylum’s highest levels of disease fighting anti-oxidants, particularly anthocyanins, which rage against heart disease, Alzheimer’s, cancer and diabetes. They’re also highest in vitamin C. For almost a century, production in the United States was banned due to concern over white pine blister rust, a fungal pariah carried by currants. But since 2003, all bans are off. I lift my glass of locally grown cassis to that.

Blackberries, raspberries and Aronia (another super-berry) will follow. The orchard view from the nearly-completed coop roof is lovely, full of promise; the fruit swelling in the heat, the bees traveling to and from, like the bowing of a thousand cellos, the chickens chattering in the distance. Life looks good from up here. -Mb


Black currants harvested in the orchard. Their smoky tartness and free-radical fighting brawn are legendary.

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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.


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.


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.


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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May 27th, 2010
Magical Realism

Pulling a warm egg from beneath a broody hen is a magical thing; the ruffled mummer as she relinquishes; the egg’s perfect, spherical warmth, its bone-smooth promise. And fitting so perfectly in the palm of the hand, as though the relationship between laying and gathering always was.

But when a new CSA member stopped by this week to say hello, to meet and greet with chickens and chard,  I was unprepared for the power and imprint of memory on her visit.


Smooth, magical warmth – straight from the source.

She had grown up on a farm in Iowa, and her connection to that time seemed to rill through her as we did our walkabout.

On the way out, we visited the hens in the Cage Aux Fowl and, on putting a warm egg in her palm, she began to cry softly. Clearly, the evocation was almost too much.

There was some awkward silence as she held the egg – and her childhood – in her hand and struggled for composure. But she seemed grateful for the connection, the coup de coeur, that the experience summoned up.

The connective tissue of memory, even unconjured, ties us to a past when farming and growing food were everywhere and everyone took part. For most people, the relationship between a meal and its source was immediate. Now, in an age of industrialized distance from real food, more depth and awareness is vital. Small farms make that connection.

So I’m becoming an egg doner (The X in my male XY has made me so!) for more obvious reasons here at Stonegate, but if I can offer up the occasional Madeleine, how wonderful. If a farm can serve as a common metaphor for connecting to our past, our food, our deeper responsibilities to the planet, so be it.    - Mb


Our fearless weeder, Jane Savage.  She don’t stop ’till she gets enough.


Carpets of mixed loose-leaf and mesclun greens are getting that delicious ’70s shag.  We can dig it!

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May 19th, 2010
A Simple Twist of Fate

Our farm is loomed over by a collection of specimen trees that were born in the 19th century;  majestic, beautiful, senile Victorians.  They seem to wander about in the wind, their leafy green gowns flapped open, trailing a bedpan of debris from their brittle canopies. Gingko, Tulip Poplar, Cucumber Magnolia, Kentucky Coffee Bean, American Linden, Chestnut, Sugar Maple, Black Walnut, Honey Locust They’re all in hospice here at Stonegate.

SGF_9027_3.3We wanna take you higher: Squash and cucumber trellises ready to be climbed.

Just this week, A 75-foot limb from a narrow crotch in an old sugar maple fell to the ground on a still, perfect day. It took out fencing and trellis, but didn’t damage a single, fragile leader of new growth in the young orchard.


If instant Karma was ever going to get me, this was the moment.

I had just finished planting a 100-foot row of heirloom tomatoes, laid in a drip line, and was walking towards the potting shed when the limb tore loose and fell from the sky like the sword of Damocles, landing right where I had been kneeling only seconds before.

How did this mass of century-old dead weight fall with such nimble care for living things, sparing my mortal coil, and making a tangle only of inanimate wire and fence board? ? It’s tempting to argue for some benign, protective outer consciousness.  But it was likely just a simple twist of fate that kept me from being pinioned to the orchard floor.

And our own local Methusela, the Balmville Tree, with its cement fillings, artificial limbs, and apparent lack of a decent living will, persists, year after year, a monument to posterity and stubborn intervention.  It, too, will surrender to gravity some day, taking centuries with it.10SGF_8956.1

Heirloom tomatoes, including Pink Beauty, Moskvich and Brandywine planted along the fencerow.

Many trees didn’t make it through the late Februrary storms this year, where snow as leaden as concrete took out limbs and power to so many in our parts.  We even lost a cherished Sargeant cherry in the center of our garden that I planted ten years ago, a child by comparison, and all the more painful for it.  But some determined, bullish engineering has wired it all better again (although the threaded rods holding the trunk together are monstrous; think prunus sargentii var.Frankensteinii.

You’d think all this fear of heights (is there a clinical phobia of tall things?) would favor my moving to the prairie, or at least give me religion (fear of being struck down from above is, after all, primal Old Testament stuff), but instead I’m going to dance with fate.

I love getting horizontal as much as the next guy, but owners of small holdings have to make the most of every inch (grow up, please…), so we’re trellising our costata romanesco squash this year, as well as our gerkin cucumbers to grow up, Please!  The more we can produce on small acreage, in any direction, the more resourceful and sustainable we’ll be.  Watch out for falling cukes!  -Mb

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April 19th, 2010
Lettuce, Chickens, and Bees, oh my!

It turns out our dizzy, mop-topped hen, Phyllis Diller, is actually Phil S. Diller, a trans-gender cockerel. He went from dulcet murmuring to an all out strident crow in the space of a week. Give him some Spandex and he’s like a relic from an ‘80s hair band. Chickens are full of peculiar surprises, but this one I didn’t see coming. We put him on Craigs List and a very nice couple from Connecticut adopted him. Apparently they’re into leather.

Phil S. Diller: A bird of a different feather.

A new flock of fuzz (all female, I’ve been assured) arrived via the P.O. today. They, along with these beautiful, warm April skies have put dance back in our weary Winter bones here at Stonegate farm. The sugar snap peas, savoy spinach and  tender varieties of early lettuce have been hardened off and are upright and steppin’ out in the Spring beds (var. ‘Red Fire’, ‘Red Sails’, ‘Black Seeded Simpson’). Other delicious greens such as Swiss chard, kale, broccoli, arugula and mesclun are warming up and waiting their turn to flee from the hot confines of the greenhouse.

The only caveat to such a glorious early Spring is the dark, foreboding lurk of a late frost, ready to take out all that’s in bud or bloom. Like a wolf crossing the property line (if I hear Prokofiev I’m going to scream!) We’re in zone 6B here in Balmville along the Hudson River, meaning our potential final frost date is May 15th, so who knows? Erratic weather seems to be the new normal, and humble resignation to its mood swings is a hallmark for those working the land. To put a spin on an old chestnut: Hope, in Spring, (and Summer, and Fall) must be eternal, otherwise we’d all be in therapy.

Far From the Madding Swarm was where I stood as hive and housing were introduced.

True to our goal of sustainability, and our dogged, hopeful nature, we’ve said Benvenuti to a hive of 12,000 italian bees in the orchard. These insatiable, chatty, free-range pollinators and makers of organic honey (maybe we’ll have some  dripping out of the combs come Fall!) will add viability to both fruit and vegetable crops. Despite our being programmed to fear their Vespa-like buzz, they’re generally ambivalent about us, and have their own Dolce Vita to live.

My Swiss friend Rudy, who’s a pastry chef and instructor at the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, set up the hive last week. As a master of all things sweet and delicious, Rudy has a fondness for bees. He showed up and built a tower of boxes and frames, emptied the thrumming swarm into them, gave me some bee-keeping-for-dummies fundamentals and told me to hope for the best.  That I can do, eternally.          – Mb.                     

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March 1st, 2010
Red Light District

We’ve legalized winter egg production here at Stonegate Farm thanks to a 200-watt red warming light in the Cage aux Fowl, and my little feathered harlots are laying like Madame de Pompadour. Even our virile black frizzle rooster, Gerald, struggles to keep on top of his broody harpies – chasing them about the frozen yard like a manic feather duster.  With eggs galore in mid-winter, the oldest profession has aroused theKavorka in all of us.


The Dutch think they’re progressive, but we have dozens of farm-fresh eggs in our district!

All this fowl balling has inspired the addition of free range eggs to our 2010 CSA shares and Market Garden: we’ve ordered two dozen more hens, full size Marans and Ameraucanas,  that should been laying their deep chocolate and teal colored eggs by Summer.  A new Gothic coop will be built in the orchard, where the birds will feed on insects and fallen fruit and in turn cheerfully fertilize from their feathered ends. Chickens, eggs, and quince, oh my!

In the greenhouse, beds and soil blockers are getting ready to start seedlings in early March.  This year, we will be adding fingerling potatoes, deep purple carrots, gherkin cucumbers, and  – heedful of  last season’s scourge – blight-resistant tomatoes!  We’ll still have the heirlooms and unusuals but have included an escrow of blight-resistance to our insurance policy.  Is any local tomato better than no tomatoes?  We’ll see.


Greens are slowly stirring inside the Winter greenhouse.

Out on the Winter farm, the stalwart Tuscan Kale has been adding frozen, vitamin rich greens to soups, and the cold has only ramped their sweetness; it seems many plants react to stress by converting their starches to sugars – a kind of vegetal survival instinct -  so kale, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and carrots are a sweet wonder beneath the blanketing snow.

Varied greens will be a mainstay again this season.  If I yearn for anything in the bleak mid-winter – and we all need a good yearn this time of year – it’s for all that wonderful, mixed cutting lettuce and mesclun greens.  Call it chlorophyll deficit disorder.  How many starchy root veg can one man eat, after all.


The snow-bound orchard, waiting for Spring to stir it to life.

Besides walking among the orchards snow-bound allées of apple and pear, pruner and notebook in hand, or starting greenhouse seedlings, winter is a long, cool breath, somewhere between quiet reflection and forward drive.  So be it.  Let the lusty chickens frolic.  Apparently, Roxanne, you dohave to turn on the red light.

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October 27th, 2009
Get the Flock out of Here

My critter radar was on high alert this week as two and four-legged wildness, determined to fatten up before frost, showed up in nonchalant numbers to peck and graze.

Where the Wild turkeys roam, using the tall kale as cover.

I don’t mind the odd, unannounced visit – maybe they assume they’re part of the Community Supporting Agriculture – but not to gobble-gobble my few, precious raspberries or tender gourmet lettuce. (Thoughts of Thanksgiving dance in my head, “raspberry-sweetened drumstick, anyone?”).

Dim-witted and ungainly, the turkeys lope about in loose coveys, poking the ground with their bobbled, blue heads. Like deer, they were once rarely seen, but the retreat of the usual predators has thrown Darwin’s natural order into chaos. When we did see a few dozen turkey poults in the Spring, they would be whittled down by raccoons or coyotes to a handful come Fall.

Heading for trouble, this young female has spent the week two-stepping through my lettuce.

To be sure, it’s a thrill to live where the wild things are, far from my urban roots where wildness was a rave on the lower East Side, but I’m still adjusting.  I’ve come a long way from throwing shoes into the trees at four in the morning because a posse of crows squawked me from my bed, but there are clearly miles to go before I sleep.  - M

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October 27th, 2009
The Impractical Swoon

For my own sanity, I managed to avoid the annualSheep and Wool festival in Rhinebeck last weekend, a sort of season’s end celebration of all things ruminant.  Not only because the fleecy crowds – hand-made and self aware from head to hoof – have begun to overwhelm the grounds, but for fear of falling in love.

Last year I fell so hard for a couple of sweet, Nubian goats that before any practical deliberation could set in, two anxiously bleating kids were on board, and the no-nonsense 4H girls were stocking the truck with bags of feed and formula.

The Salon de Chévre, complete with Empire sofa and edible art. A goatherd I’m not, although I did marry Heidi, dirndl and all.

In my impractical swoon, I built a sort of goat salonin the potting shed, complete with a bucolic Hudson River landscape and a red velvet Empire sofa. The four-by-eight-foot painting had hung in a local grange hall in the 1950s, and the sofa had graced someone’s fashionable front parlor for more than a century.

All these flourishes were lost on the goats, of course. They proceeded to eat half the painting. Only the savory bits, though: the barn and its bales of sweet hay, three outbuildings, the orchard, and an entire cornfield. They had a taste for bad art on good canvas, and had no trouble tearing it off in long, tongue-fluttered strips.

The velvet Empire sofa suffered its own fate; soiled by the constant, anxious incontinence of the goats, it went from velvet to vile in a matter of days.  And because I adopted them on impulse, I had no enclosed pasture for them to graze. I kept them tethered on a 100-foot lead, which they’d tangle around trees until they were snug up against them like tether balls against a post. The concept of counter-clockwise seemed to elude them.

But still I was smitten. I bought a subscription to Dairy Goat Journal. I bottle fed them daily (did I mention they weren’t weaned?!), I took portraits, intrigued by their strange devil eyes –  as oblong as mail slots. But before the week was out, so were they.

I clearly wasn’t ready for ruminants, and I thought of them more as farm props than responsibilities, and so sheepishly (goatishly?) brought them back to their rightful owners.

It seems no matter how well we measure our decisions, we’re always open to acts of ridiculous, blundering folly.

There were moments in the endless rain and blight this season where the idea of farming itself seemed like an act of Folly more than an act of God (it’s easier to shake a fist at God, after all, than yourself). At times, it was as though I was toiling in a medieval Bruegel painting, when what I’d imagined was Cézanne (now those are canvases I could eat!). But I’m coming through, humbled and wiser, planning for a season of plenty next year. Fool that I am.  -Mb

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September 27th, 2009
Till, We Meet Again

Fall has made its official, blustery entrance here at the farm and the tiller and broadfork are out and about, working over exhausted beds , turning under organic matter before the long sleep of Winter.

Out at my neighbor’s horse farm this week, his ten-year-old appaloosa gelding stood curiously by as a shoveled composted manure into the truck, then brushed his long, warm muzzle against my shoulder, as if to ask “what are you doing with my poop?” I love this horse – his sweet and massive tenderness. Do you suppose if I bring him a bushel of Purple Haze carrots and heirloom apples he’ll make the connection?

My Troy-Bilt tiller, Mad Max, and soil-puncturing broadfork,Spiny Norman. The tines have come.

About four, half-ton truckloads of hay-sweetened soil will top-dress the farm. Years ago, when we had just started working this land, we would travel across the Hudson in a run-down Mazda to gather our horse manure. We loaded up to the roof-line in sturdy yellow IKEA bags and hauled it home, dragging our bumper all the way across the bridge. The first methane-fueled sub-compact.

Now the horses are nearby, and chickens add their high-nitrogen spoils to the mix, although – unlike the horses – they seem perfectly ambivalent about the contribution.

Chicken guano cuffs pears in the orchard with a high-nitrogen blast.

The compost piles will in turn add their sweet, damp crumble of organic matter to the soil - a billion-strong natural order of nitrogen fixing bacteria, fungi, yeasts and molds. This universe of organisms, all dancing in the dark, and so vast as to far outnumber life above ground, is where it all begins.  The Big Bang.

Composed compost.  Corn husks, fava shells, pawpaw rinds, wood ash. It’s all good.  The larger bins, below, will turn all of our yard waste into a fertility bank with no withdrawal fees.  Good ‘ol Yankee, feel-good frugality.

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September 19th, 2009
Maine Event

I was up in Maine last week, on a shoot at Four Season Farm. Like pilgrims on a Hajj to Mecca, farmers, gardeners and homesteaders should all make their way to this singular place, out on the ragged fringe of Penobscot Bay.

It is a unique model of organic sustainability, agricultural enterprise, and soil science; an open air laboratory for industrious writer/farmers Barbara Damrosch and Eliot Coleman.


Barbara Damrosch at Four Season Farm.

Coleman has spent the last forty years listening to his land. Like a soil whisperer, he ‘s taken a stubborn slab of forested bedrock and coaxed it into fertility, infusing it with organic life. In the late 60s, when he bought his piece from back-to-the-land guru Scott Nearing (who wrote the homesteading primer, Living the Good Life: How to Live Sanely and Simply in a Troubled World), It could barely sprout a turnip. Now it turns out some of the most remarkable organic crops in the Northeast, and year-round to boot!

I came away, as I have in the past, daunted, humbled and inspired; determined to tune in more deeply to the voices on my own small parcel.

It takes years to understand the disposition of a place: the tooth of the soil, the aspect of light through the seasons, the prevailing winds, the frost pockets, the random course of rainwater. All of these inform what to plant where and when, and how make the most of your modest holding.

We seem to have had more trials than Heracles this season, but better to be toughened up early than lulled into some facile illusion of what it takes to farm well. Learning to work your land is a complex dance, fraught with missteps, emboldened by small victories, but doubtless worth doing.

Apparently, we think we can dance. – Mb


Matisse’s Dance. At Stonegate, modesty prevails (at least on Saturdays).

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September 15th, 2009
Field of Dreams

In the orchard of my imagination, well-ordered rows of pear, apple, plum an quince have by now turned delicate spring blossom into sun-burdened fruit; heavy on the branch, swollen by a long, sweet-tempered season.  And, despite all the dire chatter about the difficulties of organic orchard management, my fruit is flawless.

The heirloom apple, Swaar, in fruit at Stonegate its first season.  A tease or a sweet harbinger?

Then you channel surf into the Real World.  Truth is, I lost half my English gooseberries and a third of my hybrid black currants to root rot and anthracnose fungus, and my plums and cherries barely broke bud before succumbing to some scourge or another.

Nineteenth Century Newburgh luminary Andrew Jackson Downing knew something about fruit.  As the author of the authoritative Fruit and Fruit Trees of America,  he championed the cultivation and preservation of heirloom varieties, and would have played Quixote to the bland, shippable selection at most markets.

In his description of the apple Swaar, one of twenty three Downing-described varieties we’re growing here, he says:

“This is a truly noble American Fruit, produced by the Dutch settlers on the Hudson, and so termed from its unusual weight, from the Low Dutch, meaning heavy.  It is one of the finest flavored apples in America, and deserves extensive cultivation, in all favourable positions.”

And cultivate we will, and then some.  New posts and wire have gone in this week to add even more varieties to the mix.  They were purchased from a time-worn, scrappy lumber yard off of rt. 84 with an unshaven proprietor who bobbles about in a golf cart and seems to slink about your ankles as you load up your truck, purring approval at every purchase.

“Great posts.  White cedar, straight as hell.  And the wire’s imported from Germany.  Last you years.”

Then he sizes you up to see how many years you may, in fact, have left.  Orchards presume longevity, after all.

Fall has started to paint the garden.

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September 5th, 2009
The Weeder
After a cool, rain-muddied Summer, the sun has at last emerged, clear and lovely in September, and a quick amnesia has set in this week at the farm. How beautiful it is!

We’ve planted new mixed gourmet lettuce, baby spinach, braising greens, broccoli raab and chard, and the Brussels sprouts are starting to swell on their tall, ungainly stalks.

But this is the swan song for the farm, a last determined push before the deep sleep of winter.

We are a hopeful lot. We hope for sun, we hope for rain, we hope for fruit-swelling heat. We hope for more of whatever we and our leafy charges may covet. There’s never enough of something and always too much of something else.

Outside of the world within fences, the rest of the property has been brutally annexed by weeds. The wet Summer been a boom time for these thugs. They love excess: too much heat, to much rain, too much dry.

Barbarians at the gates. Given a chance, theselow-lifes would crash any well-kempt ground they could.

Weeds flourish on the exponential fringes of weather, thriving on adversity, sprawling and colonizing in thick, obscene swaths. They have a merciless appetite for self-preservation. Why can’t my heirloom lettuce be as shameless and libertine?

I admit, I’m impressed by their Darwinian vigor; how their root-clenched fists hold fast to the soil, how they skulk in hard-to-reach corners, or colonize and entire field overnight.

A tangled orgy of weeds pulled from the black currant beds. The cats have yet to volunteer. They use weeds to floss.

Of course, pulling these miscreants out by the roots in heavy, pitiless clumps, is an act of exaltation in the garden. Few chores blend a more complex mix of pleasure and dread.

So we weed. We’re not expecting an Oscar nod for our work. After all, In our version of “The Weeder”, no one is weeding to us (although there is something earthy and Kate Winslet-y about my wife). Just keeping ahead of them has to be good enough, one god-awful thug at a time. – Mb

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August 20th, 2009
Good Light
I was spun out from this familiar place last week, on location elsewhere as a photographer, and in the carbon-fueled hassle of plane and rental car travel felt completely unhinged from the goings-on of the farm.But Daisy took good care of chickens and cats and the greenhouse, Heidi weeded and harvested, Miles helped with compost. The little farm trundled on fine without me.

Supper in the garden, umbrellas on stand-by.

I flew in to New York shaking off the usual thunderstorms, and returned before dawn just as the sky began to slowly unfold, blue over black, and the night-lustered scent ofnicotiana was releasing itself into the still air over the farm.

Wakefulness at this hour is magical. From years of shooting gardens for books and magazines, I’m familiar with the secret, transitory beauty of twilight. The world seems to hold its breath, insect legs stop their determined rasping, and birdsongs have yet to be summoned by any indication of morning.

Then the day comes, and there is the usual damage assessment after a storm: The tight purse of the soil again pummeled into a swill by rain, the folds and clefts made by hoes and thoughtful hands all leveled, the tomatoes in a sad, rain-spilt tangle, the small-by-nature varieties of pepper and eggplant – confused by the inconstant weather – reduced to props for my daughter’s American Girl doll.

And despite all that, a smile. The Buddhists tell you that only by leaving your home can you know it for the first time. Knowing this place, with all of its quirks and provocations, is a gift.

Heidi reminds me of that. She reminds me not to become a grumpy farmer, grousing on about apocalyptic weather and the latest Book-of-Revelations pest that’s decided to stop by, and to find the good light (use a photography metaphor and he’ll understand…)

That night, we tossed a big harvest salad ofmesclun greens and loose-leaf lettuce, sweetened with sun-warmed greenhouse grapes, and made fresh pesto with skewer grilled eggplant and pepper. We ate in the garden as the little hens wandered aimlessly about our feet, and – with little effort – found the good light, filtering through the apple trees. - mb

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August 10th, 2009
Animal Farm
ires to equilibrium – a balance between taking and giving, hard woIf a sustainable farm asprk and bountiful harvest– then a few critters prowling or clucking the grounds can do wonders for your sanity when you’re off kilter. They’re also great comic relief. I’ve never known a vegetable to make me laugh. (Although there was this very silly carrot…)

Whisker deep in the big ruddy

Last week, I sternly accused my cats of raiding the tomato patch while we were away, They took the fifth (clever boys), hired one of those freaky hairless Sphinx cat attorneys, and took refuge. The next morning, our tabby was caught with his whiskers deep in the warm, submissive flesh of a Brandywine. Maybe our soft, tomato-hued cat had found his vine-tethered likeness, and liked it.

Furrowitz, Wiskerstein & Purr, LLP. Cat calls welcome.

In a year of such tomato scarcity, this feline misbehavior is salt in the wound. But maybe they figure they’ve paid their dues.

We were once sacked and plundered by a band of snarky roof rats. They came in from the dark woods like drunken Huns, getting into all and everything edible (sheetrock: a bit dry, but not bad). The cats rose to the occasion with gusto, however, and treated these marauders to an endless gladiatorial round of “toss and swat” (very much like tennis, only with paws, and rats), and we stood around them in a circle, our thumbs in the air like so many Caesars, celebrating each critters quick and squeaky demise.

We had another orange tabby a few years back that had decided to come in from the feral cold and adoptus. We named him “Agent Orange.” He never came too close or asked for too much, but was just a stealthy presence in the long grass. He was an old cat, with all the markings of a life spent in the brush or the dustbin. And the day Agent Orange died, we wrapped him in a linen pillow case and buried him beneath a patiently trained espaliered apple tree in the kitchen garden. The next Spring, the apple was dead. The other painstaking espaliers soon followed. What’s in a name? Intractable fate, apparently, even beyond the grave.

With so many lives in the balance, animal and vegetable, the critters somehow keep you, and your conceits, in check.  -Mb

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August 8th, 2009
The End of the Beginning
We’ve reached the halfway point of our first season this week. Spears of slender purplegladiloli are in flower, their tall stems crowned in a ripple of blooms, signaling what we hope will be the end of a long bout of adversity with weather. How appropriate, then, that this “funeral flower” should emerge just as we bury the last of our blighted and dearly departed tomatoes (best Monty Python accent: “I’m not dead yet!” “Well, you will be soon!” Thwack!)

Funereal gladioli in bloom in the greenhouse garden. Will we move on to a blight-free afterlife?

I have to say, adversity has been great fodder for this newsletter. Let’s face it, we like to laugh at it; it’s a form of self-preservation. There’s nothing funny about unremitting success.

That said, we came home from a few days off the farm (at the ocean, no less) to deer-trimmed brambles that were just about to fruit; a hen who went urban and decided to lay her eggs on concrete (no survivors); a cat who has decided that field mouse taste better with tossed heirloom tomatoes on the side; and a greenhouse carpeted with leathery, pulp-less grape skins, the tell-tale bingeing of a fussy raccoon (who then washed his paws in the fountain, no doubt). (laughter).  - Mb


July 27th, 2009
The Love Apple

Our tangled galaxy of heirloom tomatoes has started to glow with color this week, and – barring a love apple apocalypse – we’ll be in fruit until frost. Caught below in flagrante delecto, they seem oblivious to blight, sun-colored and heat-swollen. Yes, there is something remarkable about a warm, unruly ravel of tomatoes, the kind of sensual squalor you don’t get from neatmarshalled rows tied up with string.

Love apple comes from the French (who else?), who thought the pomme d’amour was an aphrodisiac. The Germans had their Liebesapfel, the Italians theirpomi d’amore. It seems this little fruit gets around.

But these are tough times for the pommed’amour, and the plight of tomato farmers across the Northeast has hit prime time: Both the New York Times and NPR ran pieces on the fungusamungus, and Orange County’s black dirt region was singled out at particularly hard hit.

And the big box stores like Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and Lowes – where the buyin‘ is cheap – seem to be complicit (surpirsed?).

So we can add a medieval black death of tomatoes to the minus column this year. Here’s a link to the Times article: Outbreak of Fungus Threatens Tomato Crop.

My advice: Savor every sweet, local liebesapfel that crosses your lips this season.

We Go Both Ways

Neat, marshalled rows. Efficient, very German.

The sprawl method: sensual squalor.

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July 15th, 2009
If You Shoot it, They will Come
Nothing is safe from the camera around here, and the usual subjects have become perfectly blasé aboutVogue-ing for me. If they strike a pose, I will shoot. Even the plants seem to know when the light is just right, and when I’ll be passing by, and they beam their best botanical smiles.

Bo-Bear pretends to sleep, then slips me a contract and model release form.

Stonegate was restored and designed with the camera in mind, with framable views and an attention to the pattern language of gardens and buildings that create opportunities for image making. It’s been a long process, more than ten years on now, of creating a visual dialogue with this place, and just when I think there can’t possibly be another pixel’s worth, more images get made. Apparently, if you don’t photograph it, it never existed. Spooky.

More Vogue-ing on the gate by Bo-Bear. Notice the slimming 3/4 pose with the turned out ankle. This cat’s got it going on!

You Blight up My Life

It’s here. We’re doing our best to control it, but may lose the battle. I’m putting out the best anti-fungal Karma I can.

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