July 20th, 2010

Helter Swelter

benson1As 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.

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.

benson2And 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.

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, as though overwhelmed. But soon the land was guzzling every drop in delicious, life-giving gulps. Excuse me while I kiss the sky. -Mb

To learn more about Matthew Benson’s Stonegate Farm in the beautiful Hudson Valley, visit stonegatefarmny.org.

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