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September 14th, 2012

Bookends

We’ve begun harvesting late summer sowings at Stonegate Farm of mixed mesclun greens, bok choy, mustard, broccoli raab, and heirloom radish, repeat plantings that bookend a season that began four months ago.

And the blackberries, pole beans and Sun Gold tomatoes have come on in miraculous abundance, their sun-swollen selves dangling like ornaments over trellis and fence.

CSA 9-12-1616CSA 9-12-1710

A Woofer harvest of Sun Gold tomatoes for the weekly CSA, and a Last Tango in Paradise for the seedless Concord grapes in the greenhouse.  They’ll live to dance another day.

By “we” I don’t mean the royal we (Pluralis Majestatis, that would be very sad) but my Woofers and me, helpers who’ve come to the farm from far and wide to sow, harvest, weed, and delight in all things organic. Like the plantings that bookend the season, Woofers tend to keep you balanced and centered; delegating daily chores, managing needs, avoiding idleness (although there’s much joy in idleness).  Without them, it’s possible that things would fall apart; that (to paraphrase Yeats) the center could not hold, and mere anarchy would be loosed upon (my) world.

The anarchy of weeds has certainly been suppressed by the hands and hoes that have been loosed upon them, and far from falling apart, the farm is being re-born daily with their mindful help.

Though there’s still much to be harvested and weeks to go before the farm sleeps, some mid-season stalwarts like the costata romanesco squash and the sweet and abundant greenhouse grapes have thrown in the trowel. The seedless concord that clambers so beautifully beneath greenhouse glass has been pruned back to thick cordons. Its bright purple sweetness lit up shares for more than a month this season.

CSA 9-12-6074CSA 9-12-7053If Google Maps went micro, local and organic, this is what might come up with a search for Stonegate Farm.  Harvests have been colorful and diverse this season, with deep purple pole beans, variegated eggplant, candy-colored pimento peppers, and bright Sun Gold tomatoes.  Grow, Shoot, Eat.

Long season greens like the kale and chard will be with us until frost. Though they may have lost their novelty by now, the lacinato kale, in particular, is one to “cherish until perish”; it’s just so much more nutritious than any other leafy green, full of omega-3s, calcium, iron, proteins and antioxidants. It goes into our smoothies, salads (and psyches) daily.

Just as we anticipate the first new growth in Spring, and delight in the fresh young arugula, spinach and snap peas that emerge, we should anticipate the season’s end,  savor what we have and value where we’ve been. Sounds like a good life-mantra to me.     –Mb

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June 24th, 2012

Trial and Terror

The swelter this past week brought out the crazies at the farm.  Woodchucks burrowed manically under fencing to trample and chomp through loose beds of kale, chickens lost their small minds and pecked incessantly at heirloom tomatoes, chipmunks tore heat-swollen plums from young trees in the orchard, mockingbirds stripped and gorged on ripe pearls red currant.

Weather extremes bring out the worst in all creatures, great and small.

Roses rallied, and sent out a sizzle of their own during the heat wave. Constance Spry, an old rambler with a heady whiff of myrrh, clambers over the orchard.

Roses rallied, and sent out a sizzle of their own during the heat wave. Constance Spry, an old rambler with a heady whiff of myrrh, clambers over the orchard.

Even a colony of mostly well-behaved Italian bees swarmed off in a cloud of thrumming wings to cooler pastures.  They ended up moving into a hollow in my neighbor’s faux-corinthian columns (they are Italian bees after all – were they pining for the Pantheon’s columns in Rome?).

No one prepares you for the forces acting against your farm, from absurd weather to the persistent and insatiable pressure of critters who think you’ve set a Whole Foods just for them ; it’s empirical trial and terror.

I’ve had to learn from my optimistic folly, and the more I learn the more I want to warn.  To that end, I have a half dozen eager farm volunteers coming to Stonegate throughout the season, from Italy, France, Germany, all primed to experience to agony and ecstasy of small scale organic farming.  They’re coming through an organization called WOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms), and will apprentice and learn for room and board.  Good for all.

Chickens peck and scratch in the orchard.  God forbid they develop an appetite for plums and currants!

Chickens peck and scratch in the orchard. God forbid they develop an appetite for plums and currants!

Ideally, everyone should have some sense of what it means to grow food from seed (that may be a necessary survival skill once the petroleum food economy collapses),  and have some rich organic dirt under their nails and the deep muscle memory of hoeing, tilling and weeding.

Farming builds strong, resourceful bodies, and feeds the spirit (I was once asked where I “worked out” and I said I didn’t, but I “worked, out” – meaning “outside” where the sweat and strain has meaning).

Bok Choy, Tatsoi, and mesclun greens neatly tucked into their loamy beds here at OCD farm.

Bok Choy, Tatsoi, and mesclun greens neatly tucked into their loamy beds here at OCD farm.

Organic farming is also an act of political conscience.  If, as Sylvia Breeland said, “How you eat changes how the world is used,” then WOOFers are interested in political change, to reversing the half-century old plague of proceesed industrial food and the various scourges of GMOs and acres of monoculture dripping with pesticides.

By volunteering on small farms like mine and making organic farming viable, WOOFers are changing how the world is used, one weed at a time.   –Mb

The radish harvest this season has been bountiful and, yeah, kind of beautiful too.  More of these multi-colored gems have been planted to keep up with the pretty

The radish harvest this season has been bountiful and, yeah, kind of beautiful too. More of these multi-colored gems have been planted to keep up with the pretty


The share this past week included yummy English cukes, edible flowers (mustard bloom too!), and pints of black currant.  I managed to get invited over to neighbor's (and CSA members) for a black currant clafoutis pie.  Words fail me.

The share this past week included yummy English cukes, edible flowers (mustard bloom too!), and pints of black currant. I managed to get invited over to neighbor's (and CSA members) for a black currant clafoutis pie. Words fail me.

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September 26th, 2011

This Too Shall Pass

Hurricanes Irene and Lee came and went last month and ripped through the farm with blustery, sodden winds and a muddy swill of rain that’s still running down the drive.

Newly planted seeds of Fall arugula, snap peas, and mesclun greens were washed out of their beds, heading toward the Hudson.  Chickens stood out in the wind and rain, transfixed by the chaos, their pouffy feathers matted like leaves. Bees hummed in damp confusion around the hive.

Harvests have been bountiful, despite the rain, although the  heat lovers like tomato, pepper and eggplant are beginning to grumble.


The farm these days lies as saturated as a sponge mop. The soil seems to give way under foot, like pudding, its tight, nurturing purse forced open by relentless, pounding rain.  With all the water we’re getting, maybe it’s time to go hydroponic?

I was away on a book shoot in Maine, and was texted regularly by my neighbor assuring me that the farm hadn’t been swept off to Oz, and that none of our geriatric trees had tumbled out of the sky, although some are looking precariously frail; just a puff away from oblivion.  There’ll be some tough Kevorkian-esque  decisions to be made with the chainsaw, but safe open sky to follow.

Two white pines, in particular, are standing too tall and frail and barely fleshed with needles at the crown.  A few years back, a massive spruce fell in the middle of the night, it’s brittle bones splintering across our gate house roof like glass.  Only the gutter was damaged, but our tenants were jittery for months.

It’s a miracle that anything edible has put up with a month of relentless rain and hurricanes. True, the tomatoes have been reduced to puckered globs, and eggplant and pepper are hanging hard and obstinately unripe on their stalks. Nobody likes to get his feet wet, much less stand in water for weeks on end.  Bad for the posture.

These sweet Hungarian peppers have produced non-stop since July, even with their feet wet.


Blackberries, normally ready for harvest now, are still too tart for want of sun, unable to create their rich and complex sugars. And the muddy lettuce and mustard greens have been rain-flattened in their beds, without the strength to get up.

What a bore, to prattle on about weather!  But it matters more when you’re farming and feeding others.  If this is the new normal, I suppose the farm can either founder under increasingly erratic weather, or learn to suck it up.  As a true Darwinian, I think I’ll adapt.  There’s always aquaculture.  - Mb


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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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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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