Farm Bulletin: A Farewell

Anthony and Carol Boutard have sold their Ayers Creek Farm and are moving to be near their grandchildren in the Finger Lakes of upstate New York. Here Anthony bids us farewell.

As you may recall, we put our farm on the market in early January. The Huserick family runs the nursery next door and approached us with a solid offer for the farm, neither dithering nor demanding anything in particular. (The oldest brother, Anthony, is known on this side of the property line as “the other Anthony.”) We have known the family professionally as good neighbors, and hard-working, successful farmers, for 24 years. They knew our farm has secure irrigation access by contract with the local irrigation district and excellent soils. Early on, we built quality housing for our farm’s staff, which has proved valuable in a tight labor market. Both nurseries and market farms need reliable water, soils and staff.

We had hoped to have one more open day before the sale, but the task of moving proved formidable. Carol managed the move to Penn Yan in early April and I have been buttoning things up here. The paperwork is all in order and I will handle the signing this week. I have had people ask what will happen to the farm. In the course of 45 years together, we have bought and sold three properties and were tenants in another five. We know, once our shadow leaves this place, it will belong to the Huserick family. We had 24 years to work land, and we are content with our efforts. In Penn Yan, we can still step out on a cold winter’s night and imagine the Crab Nebula floating above us, or catch a shooting star.  

One of the buttoning up tasks has been making sure our inventory of grain, beans and preserves will find its way into commerce. They are now in the good care of Wellspent Market and Providore Fine Foods. We included our smaller 8-inch Meadows Mill as part of the deal [iwth Wellspent Market]. It is compact, easily moved upon a Crab Nebula dolly (top photo), and runs off of household current. Manufactured in North Carolina, if a spare part is needed, it will show up a couple days later. 

Dressing the Mill


"I say, beware of enterprises that require new clothes. "
- Henry David Thoreau, "Walden Pond, Or a Life in the Woods"


If farmers can’t scrape out an occasion to quote of Thoreau, they are a pretty ratty specimen of that rusticated class. Grist mills need dressing, even if not in the raiment contemplated by old Henry David. 

The Millwright’s mise en place.

Both of our grist mills have pink granite stones that are quarried in the Appalachians. The stone is very hard but over the course of 18 years and tons of grains, the mill needed attention. I had to replace the augur spring that had broken, embarrassingly as I was providing Noah Cable of Wellspent a tutorial. While the mill was taken apart, dressing the stones made sense. My tool box is 2,772 miles away, so I went to Ace Hardware and picked up some ground chalk, a prick punch and a cold chisel—the needle, thread and scissors of the millwright—along with a puller to remove the drive wheel. 

The landscape of the millstone is composed of “lands” or flat areas that taper down to “furrows." There are two stones. The bed stone is fixed to the housing; the traveller rotates. These small grist mills have a simple dress defined by an unbranched furrow. Larger stones have a more complex system of lands and furrows. The chalk is dusted on the traveller and it is turned against the bed to true the stone. The goal is to identify any problematic high areas. The high areas are chipped away using the prick punch. The furrows are cleaned out using the cold chisel. As the millwright hammers on the steel tools, sparks fly from the stone.

In the foreground, a high spot is highlighted by the chalk dust. It was leveled
with the chisel and punch.

Before reassembling the mill and its drive, I restored the paint. I chose colors reflecting the palette of the muralist and painter, Thomas Hart Benton. One of his students was Jackson Pollock, which freed me up stylistically. The mill housing follows the colors of the corn kernels, while the belt housing is meant to evoke the corn plants in the field with their yellow tassels.

The mill at its new home with the Wellspent proprietors: Noah Cable, Jim and Joe Dixon.

With the grain, beans and mustard safely ensconced at Wellspent and the preserves at Providore, the van and I are ready to make trek up to the Badlands and across to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, then rambling eastward to Rochester, then Penn Yan. I have the same map of the U.S. that I marked up during our trip to Oregon in 1989. I also have my old Fuji 6x7 camera, a new light meter and 50 rolls of 120 Tri-X film, old school all the way. 

Once in Penn Yan, I will continue my plant breeding work. There are several projects I will be working on, including a lovely blackberry variety derived from a chance seedling I found on the farm. I believe it is a natural hybrid between a Chester and a Logan; the flavor is outstanding. I will also be refining our favas, and finishing up the chicory breeding work. Carol will be penning her yen for verse. If you all are passing through the village, be sure to stop by and say hey.

Top photo: The Crab Nebula as Imagined by a Farmer on a Cold Winter’s Night. An original gristmill dolly.

All photos by Anthony Boutard.

Farm Bulletin: A Simple, Intuitive, Tactile Form of Communicating the Day's Wages

Farming involves developing systems that work for both the land and the people who labor on it. Contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm reviews one such sytem.

Between 1999 and 2007, the staff at Ayers Creek Farm harvested about 200,000 pounds of Chester blackberries annually and we sold them to Small Planet Foods. The company packed the blackberries under their Cascadian Farms label. At the time, our 10-acre planting accounted for about 15 percent of the nation’s organic blackberry production—reflecting the weak state of organic fruit production and demand at the time, rather than an indicator of our prowess as growers. Nonetheless, my mother enjoyed being able to buy our berries from her local store in upstate New York. 

Chester blackberries.

A few years into the venture, mother left an indignant message on our answering machine complaining about a drop in our quality—she found the berries seedy and not so sweet. I returned the call and asked her to read to me the “country of origin.” Demand for organic blackberries had by then outstripped our production and supply gaps were filled in with organic ‘Brazos' blackberries from Chile. After that, she checked the label before buying. As New Seasons Markets expanded and immigration restrictions threatened to sap our access to labor, we shifted to fresh market production and bid an amicable farewell to Cascadian.

The currency of the field during the Cascadian Farms years was the punch card, a 3.5-inch by 4.5-inch piece of colored card stock. Common to every farm that picked fruit by hand, it was used to tally the day's wages and establish the price paid to harvest the berries. A few weeks before our first harvest, we visited the offices of the now-defunct Hillsboro Argus, the local newspaper which printed these cards for farmers. The standard card had three rows of numbers on top and four on the bottom, and a space in the middle for the farm’s name and address, the person’s name, and the date. Following the advice of the printer, our cards had a row each of 25, 20, and 10 at the top, and a row of five, two rows of two and one row of one. He also recommended three different colors of stock—yellow, red and green to allow a change in the price per pound paid without engendering confusion.

Punchcards require punches.

Punch cards need punches. The printer opened a drawer of neatly arrayed green boxes, each containing a uniquely designed punch. Commercial punches are precision tools made from heavy, polished stainless steel, fitting comfortably in the hand with no rough edges to raise a blister at the end of the day. Nor did they leave hanging chads; a term that would slip into the vernacular a couple of years later. They were $100 each. 

The printer recommended that we look for shapes that would be hard to duplicate. He regaled us with tales of industrious people who used a file to shape a counterfeit a punch from a nail, or painstakingly cut out punch marks with a knife. He recommended a pattern with a combination of curved and straight lines. We selected three which became known as the bat, sweepy lady and the fireplug.  I had the bat and weighed fruit at the center of the field, Carol had sweepy lady and tallied fruit at the north or south edges. Zenón and the fireplug would fill in where an additional tallier was needed. A punch and a card created money, so the punch was always secured to our belt with a bright pink cord.

Punches that became known as the bat, sweepy lady and the fireplug.

Each day we harvested, a new card was started with the date written on it. Regardless of the price per pound paid, all staff had to earn minimum wage. People picked at different rates and level of quality, much as typists vary in the number of words per minute and accuracy. On a given day, the tallies might vary between 150 and 350 pounds. There was no correlation between age or gender, it was just a matter of how the eyes and fingers worked in union. Leticia, a 20-year-old woman and Gregorio, an 80-year-old man, were the fastest workers, both pulling in 350 pounds or so in the course of six hours. 

On Saturdays, we set out a box of envelopes and staff placed the cards inside an envelope. We spent the better part of Sunday sitting at the kitchen table tallying the cards and preparing payroll. On occasion, someone would lose a card. We would ask them how many pounds were punched on the card. We would write that number on a card, indicating that it was a replacement, and it would go into the envelope. We also had a policy of paying on cards even if they were handed to us a year later. As currency, the cards were occasionally reassigned. For example, a cousin had to return to California and would not be there to cash the check.

On occasion, a card would be lost and a replacement was issued (left).

We kept a calendar with the starting and ending times for the day’s harvest, and calculated the number of pounds harvested that would meet minimum wage at the posted price. The rule of thumb was that if more than 20 percent of the people were picking at a rate below the minimum wage, it was time to increase the posted price. When the posted price changed, the color of the card changed. By the time we made the second change, the end of the season was nigh. Typically, the first half of the crop was easiest to harvest, the next quarter was slower and we would raise the price by five cents, and the final quarter was much slower, and the price would increase by another 10 to 15 cents.

Generally, the Chesters were considered a good day’s work. But if another farm had a field of pickling cucumbers ready, we would lose the strongest and fastest young men who could make more money in that field. We lost the same group when the vineyards started harvesting grapes. Where brawn was rewarded over dexterity, we lost the strongest staff members. By that time, the Chesters were pretty much finished, though. 

The most fraught moment in the field is during the tally. The mood could devolve quickly, leading to confusion and unnecessary upset. We had a rule that no one could talk to the tallier or to the person whose fruit we were weighing. If there was any distraction or commotion, we would stop, step back, and wait until things settled down, in much the same way as a pitcher steps off the mound to gather control of the moment. As the fruit was weighed, the number of pounds was called out and the person handed the tallier the card. The face of the card had to be clearly visible to all while it was punched, and then returned so the person could confirm the amount punched. Comity in the field was precious. It was protected by a predictable choreography and organization.

Computers have supplanted the punch card. We cling to the beautiful steel punches as a beautifully-crafted artifact of our history as berry growers. The punch card was a simple, intuitive and tactile form of communicating the day’s wages.

Farm Bulletin: Propagating a Tropical Fruit in a Less-Than-Tropical Climate

Contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm in Gaston, Oregon, is always up for a challenge when it comes to adapting his favorite foodstuffs to our maritime climate.

Sweet potatoes are propagated as clones; shoots are cut from the tuber and rooted. Those slips are genetically identical to the tuber, absent a mutation, and assure the next crop will have a similar look, flavor and texture. The curse of uniformity is that life, at least for some of us, becomes very dull indeed when everything looks and tastes the same.

For diversity, the farmer must rely on sexual reproduction which leads to a reordering of the crop’s genome. As a tropical crop, the floral biology of the sweet potato is poorly adapted to our latitude and climate, actually completely worthless, at least in terms of reproduction. Sometimes they will flower, a lovely flower at that, but seed set is beyond their capabilities. Consequently, breeders must work their magic in subtropical and tropical locations.

Jay Bost, GoFarm Hawaii

In 2016, knowing our interest and experience in growing sweet potatoes in Oregon, Jay Bost of GoFarm Hawaii and John Hart of EarthWork Seeds approached us to see if we would plant some of their seeds they harvested from their breeding work on Hawaii. We were game, so they sent us some packages. The seeds are tiny and the instructions advised that the hard seed coat had to be nicked, then the seed soaked to assess viability. If the seed started to germinate we could plant it. Following this difficult protocol, Carol managed to start 250 plants and these were planted in the field.

That autumn, we pulled the plants and identified just five out of the 250 that had potential in this climate, and we weren’t especially fussy. Most failed to produce any tubers, those that did have swollen roots produced mere rat-tails as they are termed, about as plump as a pencil. A similar phenomenon occurs with tropical races of corn, the stalks grow and grow and grow and grow and grow, as though reaching for the moon, with nary an ear maturing by the time our frost falls. The difference with this breeding effort is that the breeders specifically selected parents with potential to produce tubers at this latitude. Even so, nature maintains the house odds. Bost and Hart were gambling against the tropical nature of the crop and only beat the house two percent of the time. On par with Las Vegas casinos or the state lotteries; actually not so bad when you think of it with that perspective.

John Hart, EarthWork Seeds.

Of the five successful plants from the 2016 planting, all were white-fleshed and tawny-skinned. Although we continued to propagate the other sweet potato varieties in our stable, by this year it was apparent that only one of the old guard remained, the obnoxiously named "White Delight" (top photo, upper left), and only a handful of tubers at that. The Bost and Hart sorts had swamped our genetic stable with their vigor and contentment in our climate. As far as I can tell, three sorts dominate. On the left, there is the long, smooth-skinned tuber with few lateral root scars. The second, at the top, is plumper with many more scars and a furrowed shape. The third is very large, distinctly furrowed, rotund, with a scurfy skin. Aside from appearance, they all have good flavor and pleasant sugar levels.

We will add that this year was a stellar sweet potato moment—an unstintingly hot and long growing season. Enjoy them. Oh yes, as someone who frets at stupid variety names, these tubers are, as yet, unnamed. Oh glorious anonimity! If you must name them, "The Bost & Hart Seedling Grex" is the correct way to refer to these tubers. "No Name Yet" also works just fine, and is just as smart. 

Last year, the New York Times had an article about the quest for quality sweet potatoes, or yams as is your wont. The lesson being, forget those in the grocery store. That is precisely why we grow our own.

Top photo by Anthony Boutard. Photo of Jay Bost from the GoFarm Hawaii website. Photo of John Hart by Shawn Linehan.

Farm Bulletin: Otello's Pebbles, Stewarding a Bean's Genetics

Contributor Anthony Boutard writes: "Here is a note I prepared regarding Otello’s [Pebbles, one of the dried beans Anthony grows at Ayers Creek Farm]. On my restaurant availability list, I usually include a 'photo of the moment' followed by a note placing it in context. One week I didn’t have time to comb my photo files and draft a note, so I simply stated that due to a lack of a sponsor, there was no photo. That led to a series of fictitious sponsors."

Photo of the Moment
Generously Sponsored by: Bard, Rossini & Verdi Concepts™
Cantiamo, Salce

In 2015, we were sent an irritatingly small package of beans by Nancy Jenkins, a food writer and olive oil maker. People often leave kittens and cats at farms assuming they will be cared for in some unspecified way; mostly and fittingly, the caregivers are the farm’s coyotes or bald eagles always looking for a meal more exotic than the usual fare of mice and voles.

None
The label for Otello's Pebbles…is that the eponymous Otello?*

Likewise, small packages of pretty beans are sent or given to us in the hopes that we will become their genetic stewards. Sometimes, an endearing note explains that the beans are a family heirloom and were found in a late aunt’s garage where they had been stored for five years in a mason jar. As a further tug on the heartstrings, and doubling down on their pedigree, a charming name is given to them. A name in a tongue from the old country amps up the hype. Somehow, sending them to us assuages the custodian’s guilt of not carrying on the family tradition themselves. Despite claims made by various wags about sacred beans found in some ancient granary, garden beans are viable for about two years, after that their vitality drops off the cliff. Such claims are just as likely as the old temple cat that is still haunting the pyramid some 5,000 years later.

The package in question had a note, written by another person in the chain of stewardship. It noted that the bean was grown by someone called Otello who died early and had praised the bean as growing well in poor soil. Not much of an endorsement, and not a word about its culinary qualities. Worse, the package contained what appeared to be an assortment of types, something bean growers work hard to avoid. The custodian’s tag noted they were named "Fagioli bianci • grigi," again no first-hand endorsement of their culinary merit.

The package would have been relegated to the ACF seed museum (i.e. compost) except that Myrtha Zierock [an intern at the farm that year] and I were planting a block of soy and had space for a few more seeds. Some beans are promiscuous and will contaminate a field of a carefully managed commercial crop. Soy and garden beans do not cross pollinate so there was not harm in filling out the row. We joked that the beans looked like little pebbles and tossed them into the seeder. At harvest, we cooked up the beans and found they had their redeeming qualities. Because of their appearance, we named them Otello’s Pebbles.

In preparing for the 2020 harvest, we went out to select the 2021 seed crop and discovered the beans had drifted away from the original beguiling mix that prompted our impulsive sowing, and were now almost entirely white or light gray. The translation of Otello’s name for them was "beans white • grey", so they were probably closer to his beans than the “pebbles” passed on from their custodian—those we received in the mail. We combed the field looking for every plant that produced something other than white and light grey. In the lower dish (top photo), you can see the restored variation which is close to those in the seed package Jenkins sent to us.

Does it matter? I think so. We grow many carefully managed beans, but for a bean suited to the stew pot, a bit of a topsy-turvy mix of flavors and textures make for a far more interesting ingredient. I assumed that the genetically chaotic mix would take care of itself, but I was wrong. We have to be just as diligent in our pebbled seed selection as we are with zolfino, for example. It is a bit more of a challenge because we need to make sure we have a full and balanced selection of the original colors, as opposed to selecting for just one color.

We have tried the new selection on the plate and last September’s work was worth the effort. The restructured variety is head-and-shoulders better flavored than the "white • grey" mix corresponding to Otello’s original bean. Frankly, it is no wonder Otello failed to rhapsodize over their quality. Indeed, it is now up there with the all of our other beans, even better than that first harvest that caught our attention. If you think Italian makes the bean sound sexier, then call it sassolini di Otello delivered in the style of Keven Kline, all the same to me. But be sure to try them. You won’t regret heeding the farmer’s suggestion.

Note: The sponsor’s motto is based on Act 4, Scene 3 of Othello when Desdemona sings the Willow Song in her distress and betrayal. The words are condensed from Verdi’s version “Salce, salce, salce, cantiamo, cantiamo, cantiamo, salce, salce, salce (willow, let us sing). I am partial to Rossini’s version, though. Here is a beautiful version in recital by Joyce DiDonato accompanied by David Zobel.

Top photo: Otello’s Pebbles, 2020 (upper) and 2021 (lower) by Anthony Boutard.

* In an exchange about the label (above), Anthony clarified that, alas, the farmer is not Otello: "Otello was long dead when I received the beans. The Otello's block is influenced by the simple, bold renderings of the early 20th Century Mexican woodblock prints, particularly those of María Izquierdo and David Alfaro Sigueiros."

Farm Bulletin: Appreciating Henry

An appreciation of Henry Richmond by contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm.

In fall of 1989, a soft-spoken person called me and introduced himself as Henry Richmond from Oregon. He had a meeting in New York City at the Ford Foundation and hoped I could meet him afterwards and join him for dinner. It was my first dinner date with someone from Oregon, and he seemed very nice, so I accepted. I took the train from New Haven to Grand Central Station, and met Henry in front of the foundation’s headquarters. We enjoyed a stroll and had dinner at Mamma Leone's. He asked me to come to Portland and work at his organization.

A year earlier, the brutal murder of Seraw Mulugeta shone a harsh light on the Pacific Northwest where the Aryan Nation had found a safe haven. Portland itself had a reputation as the grubby, down-at-the-heels sister of San Francisco and Seattle. The revered James Beard had fled Portland for Europe in much the same way that Ernest Hemingway had fled Oak Park. It was a rough city trying to salvage its dying core under the expansive vision of Neil Goldschmidt, formerly Secretary of Transportation in President Carter’s cabinet. Carol and I were mindful of all this as I headed off to my assignation in New York.

Maybe it was the rich meal or the violinist spooling out Neapolitan love songs, or maybe the magic in Henry’s gentle eyes. One way or another, I returned to New Haven that night enthralled by Henry’s vision. The fact is, years earlier, Carol and I had worked for an organization call The Trustees of Reservations. The goal of The Trustees was to create a "museum of the Massachusetts landscape." As a warden of Bartholomew’s Cobble, I worked with the farmers who kept the working elements of the landscape. The vision Henry articulated was more extensive; his was the preservation of a working, livable landscape encompassing a whole state through careful management of growth. That vision drew us westward.

A month later, Henry and I travelled down to a Board of Forestry meeting in Eugene. On that trip I became AB and that is what called me henceforth. On the way down, he pointed out the Coast Range on right and the Cascade foothills on the left. The narrow, 150-mile long Willamette Valley offered some fine agricultural land and most of the state’s population. He explained how the valley’s Urban Growth Boundaries kept growth from sprawling into its productive farm and forest land, and orderly growth also facilitated the management and livability of its cities. It was not a formula for stasis; growth would and could occur, but it was a careful approach to growth.

The Board of Forestry exhibited a level of civic comity few public boards could even dream of. At the time, the law required that the board convene with a consent agenda. If any member had an objection to an item on the agenda, it was tabled until the next meeting and staff would work to address the member’s concern. No votes were taken; as long as all members consented, the agenda item was adopted. The forestry board meeting had a cerebral quality more in common with a Religious Society of Friends meeting than the normal rough and tumble of public board. 

On returning to Portland, Henry dropped me off at the Mallory with his endorsement: “It is a well-run hotel without being showy, and that is why ranching and farming families always stay here when they are in Portland.” Guests at the Mallory could count on an understated competence; a satisfying meal and a genuine smile. In the following years, we arranged for visiting friends and family members to stay at the Mallory.

From our first date in New York, I realized Henry was exquisitely attuned to the sensibilities of Oregon. He was like the Board of Forestry of the time, careful, deliberative and working to achieve good policies, and like the Mallory of the time, possessed of an understated competence that was used to build a better Oregon with his fellow citizens, and like that thin valley between the mountains, productive but vulnerable. For me, he was a mentor, teaching me how to advance legislation, build alliances and trust staff. For some reason, I was always AB to him. 

In advance of the legislative sessions and critical meetings of the Land Conservation and Development Commission, the conference room at 534 SW Third was aswirl with disparate citizen activists—a carrot seed farmer from Madras, a pig farmer from Hermiston, a bicycle and pedestrian advocate from Washington County, a Benton County grass seed farmer, a Coast Range forestland owner, a cut flower grower from Forest Grove, chief lobbyist of the Metro Homebuilders, Chair of the Jefferson County Farm Bureau—all working with staff to forge a better planned Oregon. 

This was Henry’s forte; he always stressed the need for “buy in” from a broad base of Oregonians. As professionals, staff could work on the nuts and bolts of the statutes and rules, but the underpinnings of policy were forged in that conference among people from different parts of the state and different sectors of the economy. Of the 19 Statewide Land Use Planning Goals, the first is "Goal 1: Citizen Involvement." Henry was also careful to keep the editorial boards updated and tracked the editorials diligently. The Oregonian had a box in front of their offices where, at 4:00, the 1-star edition was available. It was the first edition of the next day’s paper and, if an editorial on some critical issue was expected, a staff member was dispatched around 3:30 to grab it while the ink was still fragrant. 

“The proof is in the pudding” was Henry’s oft-used caution. This November, as we meander down the valley to make our preserves, we will pass through farmland that remains protected from non-farm uses and rural sprawl, spotted with vital towns and cities carefully contained within their urban growth boundaries. The proof of Henry's diligence at building community support for the protection of Oregon’s character is there as the miles tick by, as are the names of the people on barn sides and mailboxes who helped him along the way. 

As berry season approached, I thought of Henry and how nice it would be to see him when he stopped by for his flats of Chesters, which he shared with his friends and neighbors. At the end of June, his son Easton sent me an email simply saying “please call me.” Easton confirmed what I surmised upon seeing the terse note; I wouldn’t be seeing Henry again. But I will have plenty of occasions to remind me of the kind guy from Oregon who took me to dinner at Mamma Leone’s that crisp autumn day over 30 years ago. 

To Henry, with all my love,

AB


Photo of Henry Richmond from 1000 Friends of Oregon website.

Farm Bulletin: Patience, Perseverance Pay Off in Perfect Pumpkin Seeds

As you browse the bulk goods section at the store, collecting nuts and seeds from the bins or even grabbing bags off the shelves, you would do well to think about the farmer who grew them. As contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm outlines below, those products we so blithely consume by the handful didn't just come from a packet of seeds scattered on the soil—indeed, they may have taken years to get to the point where the farmer considers them a viable product.

A pumpkin fruit with hull-less seeds originated as a chance mutation in the Austrian state of Styria during the 1890s. The pumpkins were grown as an oilseed since the 1740s and a sharp-eyed Styrian farmer noticed one had very different seeds. Without a hull, it was much easier to mill and press for oil so the mutation gained acceptance.

Styrian pumpkin seed oil, kürbiskernöl, is a Protected Geographic Indication (DOC, AOC equivalent) reserved for oil pressed from seeds grown in Styria. There are especially adapted machines for harvesting the fruits and extracting their seeds. For extraction of the oil, the washed and dried seeds are milled, turned into a paste with addition of water and salt, roasted and then pressed for their oil. As with other finely-crafted foods, other places have scrambled to find ways to cut corners and manufacture something cheaper, lacking the spirit of the original.

The idea of growing the hull-less seed type pumpkins for their seed came to us ten years ago. We did not have any interest in producing oil, just the seeds. Commercial pumpkin seeds in the grocery store had failed to impress; the seeds were chipped and broken, often stale and you could see they were grown and harvested without thinking of them as a fine food. Just a bunch of widgets. We thought it would be wonderful to have some good quality pumpkin seeds in the pantry.

Those original purchased seeds were a messy lot as well, producing seeds with qualities that made them less than desirable for simply eating whole. More widget thinking. Most problematic were seeds that split or germinated in the fruit; some even had roots. These seeds contained the bitter compound cucurbitacin and spoiled one’s gustatory moment. These very bitter, toxic compounds are water-soluble, so they may not affect quality of the oil, but when chewing the seed their awfulness lingers. The seeds also varied in size and some retained a hard rim detracting from their pleasure for consumption as whole seeds. Undeterred, we decided to embark on improving the plant's genetics and our management of the fruits.

Fruits in the Cucumber family typically have three placentas forming six paired rows of seeds, easy to see in the lefthand fruit. (That fruit is not very interesting, aside from being a perfect fruit for setting aside as a seed source. For our purposes, an uninteresting pumpkin is the gold standard.) Each placental pair is usually pollinated by a cluster of pollen grains from a single plant. You see this by looking closely at the interesting fruit on the right. The seeds in the lower lefthand placental pair have not split, while the seeds of the other two pairs have opened up showing their white cotyledons. This shows that the splitting of the seeds in the fruit has a genetic component. The observation means we can reduce seed splitting by selecting against the trait.

If the seed splitting had been a cultural trait, rather than a genetic trait, we would have needed to analyze how we grow the plants and harvest the fruits. Before we settled on the genetic cause, staff argued that we were taking too long to harvest the seed and that led to split seeds. A few years ago, confident that we were on the right track, we increased our planting substantially. To save labor, in early September staff harvested the seeds in the field. We did not need to haul the fruits out of the field and dispose of the deseeded pumpkins, saving a lot of staff time.

Alas, as those seeds dried they smelled exactly like vomit, an awful odor that lingered even when they were dry. We ended up giving nearly 150 pounds of dried pumpkin seeds to our friend’s pigs. A very expensive loss for us. Just the harvest, extraction, cleaning and drying of a pound of seeds required a half hour of labor. That did not include the growing of the plants, an additional expense. The last two years entailed taking baby steps to figure out where we went wrong.

In 2018, we planted just a few pumpkin plants. In September, we piled the pumpkins next to the harvest shed while we finished other tasks. With their hard shells, they were fine through all sorts of weather. In November, we started opening the fruits and happily there was no problem with splitting and, most importantly, the seeds were delectable from the start. Our breeding efforts were again validated, and the more patient approach to harvesting was also rewarded. Last year, we followed the same protocol with good results again.

Emboldened, we decided to double the planting this year. One rainy day in mid-September something seemed odd; there was music coming from the barn. Staff had decided to start removing the seeds from the fruits. Obviously, we had not adequately communicated the reason we left the pumpkins piled up in front of the shed. We dried the seeds hoping they would be good, but we had 28 pounds of pig food. I filled a jar of those seeds along with one containing the remnant of last years seed, and gave both jars to staff. One sniff and they understood the problem, and why it is important to wait.

In the course of two months, between mid-September and mid-November, the seeds continue developing within the fruits. Bear in mind, the fruits started growing in mid-July; so by leaving the seeds in the fruit until November we are doubling the growing time for the seeds. The pumpkin fruit is a living remnant of the plant and those seeds are drawing nutrients from the pulp. During this idyll they assemble the oils critical for their flavor. By mid-November, the seeds are measurably denser than those extracted in September, and have a fine, nutty flavor. Most importantly, no more recoiling from the odor.

We will continue to refine the genetic and cultural dimensions of our pumpkin seed production. In the meantime, we are enjoying this year’s harvest. They are delicious raw, but we like to pop them in a hot, dry skillet. The heat toasts the lovely oil and offers a pleasant crunch. Children will enjoy seeing them pop in the pan. All the popped seeds need is a pinch of salt and, just maybe, a squeeze of lime as they cool. Additional oils, fats and spices cover up their fine flavor. If they had a dull flavor or smelled like, well, you know, then it would make sense to try and add a different flavor or fragrance, but our seeds are perfect as they are.

Farm Bulletin: Capturing Demeter, Goddess of the Harvest

The fall harvest of goods from Anthony and Carol Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm is truly a gift from the gods. Their grains and beans, grown from varieties they have adapted over decades of painstaking selection, play an iconic role on many Oregon restaurant menus and family tables. The same goes for their stunning selection of preserves made each year from only the best portion of their fruit harvest. See below to find out where to buy their products locally.

Demeter has lapsed into her sad repose. We have taken many of photos of the harvest deity. Demeter (Ceres in Latin) is generally portrayed with poppy capsules and barley heads in her right hand, reflecting her association with medicine and food, and a sickle or pomegranate in her left (top photo). The pomegranate a reminder of the six seeds Persephone ate. This simple bust captures the mother’s sadness and longing, subtly and gently, as she patiently awaits her daughter’s return. As we work in our harvest shed, we are reminded that the exuberance of her summer with her daughter leaves the granaries full.

Capturing Demeter, National Museum, Rome, 2005.

The chap on the right (photo, left) is the Emperor Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Augustus Pius in long form. Generally regarded as one of the five “Good Emperors,” hence the Pius tagged on to the impressive string of names. Emperor Titus Antoninus Pius was credited as an adept administrator a talent that, to this day, appeals to the Romans. He was the adopted son of the Emperor Hadrian and was designated as his successor. Hence lots of busts and statues are scattered about the bounds of the Ancient Roman Empire, and his visage is stamped into Roman coins of the era.

But it is Demeter who is on our minds. An epic harvest has kept us very busy. Staff has just finished the extraction and cleaning of the pumpkin seeds. We have yet to shell out the popcorn, but there is no urgency because it takes many more weeks for the kernels to dry sufficiently so as to pop well. Nestled on the ears, the kernels will dry more safely. Haste can lead to small fractures in the kernels, robbing them of their oomph. Our trips to Sweet Creek Foods to make the preserves require an extra level of planning. Yesterday, we managed to wrangle the raspberries, Boysenberries and Veepie grapes into glass. Next Friday, we hope to accomplish the same with the currents, jostaberries and Loganberries. The jellies, plums and cherries are on the calendar for December.

The lag in scheduling open days has resulted from the need for careful planning, not plodding. Given the choreography imposed by the virus, we have been unable to organize an open day until now.

We are scheduling open days on Sunday and Monday, the 22nd and 23rd. We will send out a separate, more succinct email early next week for orders (e-mail Anthony to be notified). A December couplet will follow when we finally put the remaining fruit of the year in a jar.

Our beans, grains and preserves are also available in Portland, saving you all a trek out to the farm. You can find them at Providore Fine Foods (Pastaworks has preserves, Rubinette has grains and beans); Real Good Food; and Coquine.

Handcut poplar banner board.

This is a banner board using poplar, another fairly soft wood. The motifs for the sun and rain are influenced by those used by 20th century Japanese woodblock makers. The red ink is used by Japanese artists for their hanko—a signature stamp.

It is simplistic and imprecise shorthand to call something “Local" or "Oregon Grown.” And given the complexity of bioregions within the state, completely meaningless in terms of the influences on flavor, quality and spirit when it comes to what we grow here.

Our harvest is wrought from the soils and climate of Gaston, perched as we are on a bench above Ayers Creek with its heavy but fragile clay soils, and a hard-edged climate forged as it is between the montane anvils of the Coast Range and the Tualatin Ridge. Travel a few miles to the north or south, the climate and soils are a world apart. The challenges posed by the soils and environment of Gaston have pushed us into growing our own seed selections and varieties. All good reasons to use the ink of a hanko on the banner.

Photos by Anthony Boutard.

Astiana Tomatoes: Born in Italy's Piedmont, Bred in Oregon

Forgive me, dear readers, but I'm about to be in head-down tomato processing mode for the next couple of weeks. I've got two sheet pans of chopped tomatoes in the oven that need to come out in 30 minutes, so this is going to be quick. They're the tail end of 60-pounds of the red-ribbed beauties known as Astiana tomatoes from Ayers Creek Farm, the first round of the 150 or so pounds I plan to process this year and squirrel away in the freezer for the winter.

I know, crazy, right?

A tomato ready for market can take years of careful selection.

Those tomatoes, with just the right balance of tart-to-sweet, are the product of more than a decade of selecting seeds for flavor, plant health and field-hardiness on the part of Carol and Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm in Gaston, Oregon.

Carol describes the discovery of this signature fruit thusly:

"We came upon the fruit at the market in Asti [in the Piedmont region of northwestern Italy], marked 'Nostrano.'  We knew it was the local variety, far less ornamental than the perfect, glossy imports displayed nearby. Had tomatoes not been on our shopping list for that night’s dinner, we might well have walked on by, but made the decision to select a few for the sauce. Their flavor was a wonderful surprise and it was after dinner that I scooped out all the seed I could find from the compost bucket."

(Anthony would remind me here that Italy's Piedmont is on roughly the same latitude as Oregon, meaning that the seeds could be adapted to our maritime climate.) 

Harvest also means
selecting seeds for next year.

From that less-than-a-handful of seeds they worked over the years to adapt them to their Wapato Valley soil and climate to grow the tomato of their dreams. It's important to point out that since tomatoes yield only one crop per year, selecting and planting for reliable results can take a decade or more to achieve the desired result. Then it requires painstakingly selecting seeds each harvest season in order to have enough of a selection for the next year's crop.

Plant breeding is truly the commitment of a lifetime, and the knowledge of Anthony and Carol's hard work makes my enjoyment of these amazing tomatoes all the sweeter.

Roasted tomatoes

My method of roasting is super simple, and to me respects the integrity of the fruit's best qualities, not to mention giving me the maximum flexibilty when it comes to using them.

Preheat the oven to 400°, roughly chop the tomatoes into two-inch chunks, load onto two sheet trays skin-side down and roast for an hour. Cool enough to pull most of the skins off (most easily done by hand), load into quart freezer bags and you're done. If you want a sauce-like consistency, cool completely and run through a blender or food mill.

For a smoky flavor, you can build a fire in your wood-fired grill, spread the hot coals out and put a layer of tin foil over the grates, leaving the edges open so smoke can escape. Roughly chop the tomatoes as described above and place skin-side down on the foil. Place the lid on the grill and roast tomatoes until they are cooked, about 45 minutes to an hour. 

Limited quantities of Ayers Creek Farm Astiana tomatoes are available during their brief season at Rubinette Produce and at Real Good Food.


Here's a recipe for a fabulous tomato soup, one that I think rivals the best you're likely to find.

Creamy Roasted Tomato Soup

8 Tbsp. (1 stick) butter
1 large onion, chopped fine
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 c. flour
2 qts. (8 c.) roasted tomatoes or 3 28-oz. cans crushed tomatoes with their juices
2 c. chicken broth
1 Tbsp. kosher salt plus more to taste
1 tsp. celery salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper

In a Dutch oven or large soup pot, melt butter over medium heat. Add onion and sauté until tender and translucent. Add garlic and continue to sauté 2 minutes. Add flour and stir, making sure it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan, for 3 minutes. Add broth, tomatoes, salt, celery salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer for 30 minutes, stirring frequently to make sure nothing sticks to the bottom of the pan. Remove soup from heat and, using an immersion blender,  purée the soup thoroughly until smooth*. Add more salt to taste, if needed. Serve.

* I don't mind a little texture from any bits that don't get totally blended in, but if you want a completely silky smooth finished product, you can press it through a fine mesh sieve, which will catch any remaining seeds or other bits.

Farm Bulletin: A Nod to State Fairs Past

Oregon State Fair, circa 1996, by Anthony Boutard, Ayers Creek Farm:

Among the activities on hold this year is State Fair, traditionally held over Labor Day weekend. Here are a few moments from State Fairs in the mid-1990s. The animals shown at the fair are the blue ribbon winners from the 36 county fairs, culminating in the big event before returning to classes. The intense concentration on the part of the young animal owners underscore their serious purpose. A lot of work has gone into this moment. State Fair is the wonderful blended fragrance of dung and saw dust, muted light and sound to keep the animals calm, and a lunch and nap next to the stall after a late night at the arcades and amusements. A short distance from the show buildings the noise of the rides, arcade bells, and the unceasing calls of the barkers and sellers of treasures found only at fairs, interspersed with the fragrance of fried foods of every sort.

Farm Bulletin: Celebrating the Grain Harvest

My parents moved to The Dalles when I was in college, enabling me to explore the area of Oregon from Dufur to Tygh Valley to Maupin in the often blast-furnace temperatures of summer—one year it hit 112 degrees. I was enthralled by the high rolling hills of wheat, entranced by the wind that ruffled the waves of grain like some pale ocean stretching to the horizon. Contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm reminds us of the ancient rites of the harvest.

The Lammas or Lammastide, falls on the first of August. It is the English “Loaf Mass” celebrating the new grain harvest. The day falls about midpoint during the grain harvest. The loaf is made from the newly harvested grain and used in the Mass. The use of the new grain is symbolic, gratitude for the new harvest. The granary would still have months worth of grain in storage, a hedge against a poor harvest. It may be months before the new grain finds its way again into a loaf.

Waves of scattered straw from the harvested durum,
Lammas Eve, 2020—the birthday of Juliet Capulet—Ayers Creek Farm, Gaston.

It is also notable that the Lammas falls during a busy time, so there is no time for a feast or festival, just a loaf of bread for a modest Mass to say thank you. The harvest feasts and festivals will have to wait until the Harvest Moon, the full moon closest to the autumn equinox. This year, the first of October.

Photos by Anthony Boutard. Top photo of wheat and scabland, Wasco County, Oregon, August, 1997