“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
“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants,” says local-food evangelist Michael Pollan, and though his books have been translated in at least sixty-five languages including Urdu, Chicken wasn’t one of them. Even if it were, it would be lost in translation on my willful mob. Can you say “Eat food, lots of it, mostly Matthew’s plants.”
Breakfast of Chickens: The apple blossom special.
My Dilemma with Omnivores is their lack of discrimination. They seem to pick up on the coddled pheromone trail I’ve invested into my favorite varieties an go for those first. Just when a long-awaited apple, pear or tomato is heavy with itself, it’s pecked or gnawed into oblivion.
Chickens are über-omnivores: They’ll sample, trial and taste almost anything, even chicken (don’t ask). And they’ve become so unhinged lately by the delirium of Spring that they’ve even taken to browsing the blossoms off of fruit trees in the orchard. Who does that?
I’m not alone, of course. I just have a larger produce department than most home gardeners, and a few too many fowl wandering the aisles.
Annual Lamium purpurium carpets the orchard. Also known as henbit, it’s chicken candy.
I spoke about “Growing Beautiful Food” at a big garden conference last month in Connecticut, where the Master Gardeners were many, and the Q&A was mostly about predation. “Yes, it’s all very pretty, and thank you for your lovely presentation, but what about the critters? How do you keep them out? This was the idée fixe: Beauty is negotiable, plundering is not.
And while I implored them to sacrifice a few peonies for eggplant, they couldn’t get passed the loss factor. Though growing things is always fraught with peril, growing food–no matter how beautiful, healthful, and environmentally responsible—is asking for trouble. Of course, in the long haul, not growing your own, or not supporting those who do it locally and organically, is the real worry; It will be no accident when we just can’t feed ten billion people on chemically saturated agricultural land that’s dependent on a diminishing supply of petroleum. So a few wayward chickens or nibbled greens are the least of our worries.
I’m seeking absolution, I suppose; having come in from the urban cold of not knowing (or caring) where my food came from, to caring deeply and deciding to do something about it.
I came from cities – physically, psychologically. From the bump and bustle of urbanism. No planting, no growing, no harvesting. And yet, here I am in mid-life, an organic farmer, feeding my family, feeding neighbors and CSA members; lost in a headlong swoon for this crazy, sexy piece of earth, and unable to imagine a life without it.
Spring at Stonegate Farm: One sexy piece of earth.
So I let the chickens have their barter share: They lay, I look the other way. A dilemma resolved by a kind of rural détante. Sometimes letting go can be the very thing your life needs. -Mb
Visit the farm @ StonegatefarmNY.org
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
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.