Sunday, July 01, 2018

Farm Bulletin: A Welcome Update, a Busy Summer

It's an incredibly busy time at Ayers Creek Farm, but contributor Anthony Boutard takes a few moments to give us an update—along with his usual edifying elaboration—on the farm in summer.

Even when we were at Hillsdale [Farmers' Market], we went quiet for the spring, only surfacing after the 4th of July. About 15 years ago we created our farm plan to emphasize production from late summer through winter, and avoid the distraction of trying to be the first to harvest this and that. It is a very busy time for us. Ten hour or longer days for us and staff, and little room for errors. We are very grateful that the Joshes at Barbur World Foods and Rubinette Produce have kept our grains, &c. available.

Delivering Montmorency cherries to Nostrana.

We finished parching the wheat last week and it is in the drying racks. [Top photo taken after threshing and cleaning the parched wheat, a dirty job.] Fruit for preserves is coming in apace and we are aiming at an increase in the popular varieties which run out too soon. We will thresh the mustard seed next week, trying to stay ahead of the buntings, finches, sparrows and quail who fatten up on the seeds. They will be demoted to the status of gleaners. The fields are in very good shape. We have expanded the plantings of most crops, some substantially. For example, the chickpea planting has gone from 24 to 46 rows, and we have added an extra row of Astianas. Perhaps, with luck, some new, unheralded odds and ends should emerge at harvest.

Tomatillo flower and immature fruit.

There are the usual frustrations. Bad batch of potting mix did a number on the vigor of the tomatillos and cayenne peppers. The plants sat moribund for ten days and when we dug them up and looked at the roots, they had barely grown. Three days ago, in a “Hail Mary” play, we decided to lift every plant, knock off the bad potting mix, and reseat it in the ground. We will see if this works. Interestingly, when we described the problem to others, they had experienced similar disappointing results. We looked at the plants 48 hours later and they looked better already, or at least we convinced ourselves that the effort was worthwhile.

Frogs love prunes, too…who knew?

We are scrambling to clean up the orchard so we can harvest the gages and prunes later in the summer. It is nearly impenetrable at the moment. For various reason, that work was neglected for the last three years. Otherwise talented field people, our staff are absolutely bone lousy at pruning fruit trees. In the cane fields, vineyards and tomato plantings they move deftly with confidence and art, in the orchard they are timid and visionless, making matters worse. Anthony has about three more weeks of work in the orchard.

There is no biological reason to prune an orchard. Fruits trees have evolved to multiply and be fruitful without much intervention. Human introduction of insects and diseases, pruning tools that spread disease and our compulsion towards monocultures lead to most biological challenges in the orchard, not neglect. However, good pruning is essential operationally. We need to pass the tractor under the canopy and the limbs must be spaced so as to facilitate harvesting. The tractor will strip the fruit of a low limb, and the operator suffers bruises and scratches. Moreover, if the staff cannot see a perfectly ripe fruit, it does not exist and will go unpicked. Pruning makes it easier to exploit the best of the orchard. The plant’s architecture at harvest is critically important in tomatoes, grapes, berries and orchard fruit.

Just shy of two weeks from now, the next two generations [of Boutards] will be out visiting us. We are now insistent they visit when there are fruits and vegetables ripening, rather than based on some nonsensical mid-winter holiday grounded in paranoid pagan ritual when the Pacific gales roar. They are old enough to run a bit feral.

Chesters in situ…

We are planning to have an “Open Farm” weekend when the first Chesters ripen. We will have parched wheat, barley and popcorn available, as well as whatever fruit is ripe. We will schedule an informal farm walk as well.

The exact weekend is impossible to nail down. The Chesters are notorious for their erratic ripening schedule. We have started harvesting as early as the 18th of July and as late as the 20th of August. After 20 years working with the fruits, we know better than to suggest we have even a glimmer of insight as to when things will get rolling. Better than the offhanded familiarity begotten by an all-too-predictable behavior. As our grandson noted with his customary theater, “I prefer to grow difficult plants.”

Barn owlet "in her emine stole."

Regarding the other element of the farm’s productivity, our birds, bees and insects are doing well. The barn owls raised five chicks. They are now in their immature plumage. Happens quickly. In mid June, the youngest was covered in down and looked like a duchess in her ermine stole, with just its feathers bearing new plumage. Today, the down has been shed.

Our water feature, the swan, is still about, contentedly keeping company with the three families of young geese and an oh-so-elegant great egret.

Frugivorous acorn woodpecker.

A reminder that acorn woodpeckers are frugivores, fruit eaters, equally content with both the fruit of the oak, acorns, and our staff’s sweet cherries. The acorn woodpeckers also enjoy other fruits such as grain kernels (yes, they are fruit) and plums. Soon, we will hear the reedy calls of the young when they leave their nest that the colony excavated in a fir snag.

All photos by Anthony Boutard except for cherries at Nostrana (used with permission) and Chester blackberries.

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