Farm Bulletin: Chicories Are Here!

A heads-up from contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm:

We have started delivering the Arch Cape chicories to our restaurant accounts and some selected stores. These are Rubinette Produce on N.E. Sandy and New Seasons Market at Cedar Hills, Raleigh Hills and Grant Park. Those New Seasons stores are on the delivery route. When we see something special in the produce section, we communicate our pleasure to the staff. Chicories are a very small bit of their portfolio, and the Arch Cape just an atom. A complimentary remark helps catch their attention when it comes time to reorder. If you don’t see them, inquire.

Arch Cape chicories.

The chicories are heading up two weeks earlier than last year. The February full moon is 11 days earlier this year—February 8th versus February 19th last year—a likely factor. We enjoy the idea of the moon as the conductor our lives. In her gibbous state last night, she traveled the fair sky of the ecliptic with gentle light borrowed from the sun, extending the hunting hours of coyotes. Their exuberant choruses through the night played off against the amorous calls of the great horned owls. We are keeping an eye on their nest as the female will be settling down soon.

A couple years ago, we saw a post where these lovely heads were chopped cross-wise for a salad. It was jarring to the loving farmers' eyes, a shock and abomination that lingers to this day. These chicories should be taken up with our digits, i.e. our fingers, not a fork, and nibbled slowly, contemplatively down the blade. Savoring the sweet nub of the root before picking up another. It is a salad to linger over lovingly, not forked up in haste. To prepare them for this ritual, we cut from the tip of the root nub to the base of the leaf, and then tear them apart lengthwise in four or six pieces. In this manner, as shown above the elegance of the blade is retained, along with the sweet nub. They are best dressed lemon juice which, as a fruit juice, confers a measure of sweetness to the raiment.

In 2017, we encountered a small cluster of chicories heading up January. It was clear that they were a genetic amalgam of the various sorts we had planted over the years, prompting us to start the "Bald Peak" project. We put them in pots so as to isolate them for pollination purposes, and harvested the seed that August. Last July we planted a row, and now we are selecting plants for our second seed harvest. We enjoyed walking the seed row with our friend Myrtha Zierock this week. Below are some examples of the heads we encountered. They were growing in the Arch Cape rows, and thus fair game for the harvest knife. The seed we harvest in August will ripen too late to resow. It will be planted in the July 2021 for harvest in January 2022. All this requires a schedule because we also breed to grow seed for the Arch Cape. In any given year, only one type of chicory can be grown for seed so as to avoid undesirable cross-pollination. 

Why go to all this bother and expense? Most chicory seed is produced in Europe, and is well-adapted to the day-length and weather conditions on the continent. The varieties are highly localized. We were constantly disappointed by the quality of the crop when grown in Oregon. One year, the crop from a prominent and respected seed company only yielded 10% harvestable heads, the others were subpar, to put it politely. Other times, we had germination problems. Because the seed was adapted to areas with relatively dry winters, the plants did not have good rot resistance, leading to tip burn and bottom rot. Useful traits reside in the populations, but they need to be amplified by the rigors of our climate and selection. Farmers put up with enough grief; seed quality shouldn’t be heaped into the emotional equation. Consequently, we now manage and produce our own seed.

Farm Bulletin: Appreciation for a Well-Grown Potato

If you love potatoes like I do, you can do no better than to read the following appreciation from contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm, who apparently wrote a treatise on the spud when he was a mere sprout. As mentioned, he and Carol only grow them for personal use, but they can be obtained for a short time at open farm days, one of which falls this weekend, December 14 and 15, from 2 pm to 5 pm. They are, indeed, worth the drive.

This summer, the Bonnotte made headlines as the world’s most expensive potato, apparently with some selling at auction for roughly $270 per pound. There is no good explanation for this high price other than there are some people with too much money. It is good that they share some of it with farmers. The potatoes are grown on Noirmoutier, a sandy island off the Atlantic coast of France where the farmers enrich their soil with seaweed. The entire crop is sold as new potatoes, before the tubers mature.

Bonnette potato, $270/lb.

The report piqued my attention. My term paper for Biology 104, Plants and Human Affairs, was titled: "Of Things Algal in Nature, A look at the economically important algae of New England and the Maritime Provinces." One section was devoted to the use of seaweed as fodder and fertilizer. The coastal areas of these areas historically used seaweed as a manure; the proper term for a natural material used for the improvement of the land. They carefully gathered the wrack from the beaches and plowed it into the soil. Seaweed is rich in phyto-colloids which help retain moisture and nutrients.

The potato and other members of the nightshade family are heavy feeders and reward their cultivators' attention. You can throw every amendment on a turnip or a radish with slight effect. Lettuce and other greens are meager in their returns. The hungry spud, though, rises to the occasion.

Carol escorts potatoes to the harvest shed.

Seaweeds provide the potatoes with a rich source of iodine, vanadium, iron, boron, copper, cobalt, zinc, molybdenum and manganese. These are trace minerals deficient or wholly absent in our washed-out soils, or the sandy soils of Noirmoutier for that matter. They wash out of the soil and into the ocean. So seaweeds and sea salt are means of closing the mineral loop. Consequently, we have always been generous with seaweed when preparing our potato bed.

The seaweed most commonly used in agriculture is Ascophyllum nodosum. Acadian Sea Plants, Nova Scotia, produces a high quality, easy-to-handle dried kelp meal that we use as a soil amendment. It is relatively expensive, around $90 for a 50-pound bag. Maxi-Crop Kelp Meal is harvested from the Norwegian kelp beds, and is roughly the same price. Maxi-Crop has a soluble form we use in our seedling production. We add 50 to 90 pounds to the potato bed.

Potage bonne femme.

The other soil amendment we use for the potatoes is a finely ground, mineral rich rock marketed as Azomite. It is from a deposit in Utah where a volcano erupted into an ocean. Once again, it provides a wide spectrum of the elements. We add about 100 pounds of this ground rock to the bed.

Are these ministrations worth the effort and money? It depends on how you regard the spud. If it is used as a cheap starchy substrate for cheese sauces, butter or sour cream, or for deep frying, certainly not. The potato’s flavor is not the point of the endeavor. Sort of like the modern varieties of popcorn that are specifically bred to confer no confounding flavor in the kettle mix. If you are preparing a simple potage bonne femme, leek and potato soup, as we did for the staff at Sweet Creek Foods this Tuesday, a fragrant, flavorful potato is essential. The better the potato, the better the soup. A large pot disappeared in short order. As garnishes, we included freshly grated horseradish, ground cayenne and finely minced speck from the Alto Adige.

Anthony titled this "Desirée."

We don’t grow potatoes commercially; they are for our own table. Just not worth explaining the difference in price for a carefully grown potato. When we have extras, as we do this year, we sell them at the open days. Though it is comforting to know that in France, quelle suprise, they are esteemed enough to grow carefully, and the farmer is rewarded for the effort. We must admit, a tinge of envy, too.

Farm Bulletin: Response to a Reader

Under normal circumstances I don't post reader comments, but in this case I felt contributor Anthony Boutard's response to the question about short-straw grains, from his previous post about the durum wheat he grows at Ayers Creek Farm, was important to understanding the whole story.

A reader commented:

I read a book recently that said the short straw varieties were specifically developed for warm climates like Mexico and India where rust is a serious problem. In your climate I'm guessing it's a wash.

Anthony Boutard responded:

Often the second half of a story is left out to create a myth, this is especially true with respect to the “Green Revolution.”* Short-straw grains allow fungicidal sprays to penetrate into the planting more effectively, and that is one of the reasons they are favored. In the spring, spray buggies douse the field to control rust and tall plants would make it hard to get the penetration needed for effective control of the disease. Outside of organic systems, rust is managed by fungicides.

Pesticide spraying rig.

Tolerance for rusts in grains is genetic and I see no evidence that it is linked to straw length. Logically, it doesn’t make sense. Next spring, take a moment and see where the rust and other fungal diseases develop in the grain field. It is in the low areas where airflow is impeded. You can easily see the yellowing of the plants in these patches.

The problem with short-straw grains in an organic setting is the rain splashes soil and fungal inoculum onto the leaves and they take longer to dry out in the morning. Rust inoculum that blows into the field can thrive on the wet leaves and stems. Modern varieties are shin high, right in the splash zone. The durum, wheat and barley we grow are over waist high, so the foliage is well out of the splash zone. They do well in an organic setting. Bear in mind, these long-straw small grains have been grown successfully for eight millennia or more without employing a chemical arsenal. That is why we favor them.

Aerial application of pesticides.

The pernicious nature of spraying was driven home when we were planting melons and a neighbor sprayed his wheat field. As the buggy passed by, the brown ground spiders exited in a mass, crawling over our hands and legs. Thousands and thousands of refugees, an indelible moment, along with the chemical stench of the insecticide.

Unfortunately, pushing short-straw grain varieties that require heavy use of chemical inputs including fertilizers, fungicides, insecticides and herbicides have damaged the health of farmers and ecosystems, especially in countries such as India and Mexico with lax environment controls. The Bhopal disaster was the result of a factory producing carbaryl, the insecticide marketed as Sevin.

Read more about legislative attempts to regulate spraying of pesticides in Oregon.

* Top photo shows an agricultural worker spraying pesticide on a short straw variety in India. These varieties require heavy use of expensive industrial pesticides (note the worker is unprotected from the spray). Often the seeds were genetically modified patented varieties, so farmers could not save the seeds from their crops as they had for millenia, and were forced to buy new seed every year or face prosecution.

Farm Bulletin: Return to Durum

James Robinson, an organic dairy farmer in Cumbria, recently wrote that farmers are always playing the long game. A female calf born today will not enter his milking herd for two years, and it will be two years after that before she will return much profit to the farm. Anthony and Carol Boutard have been developing varieties of organic corn, grains and other crops at Ayers Creek Farm, a process that can take several years before they'll know whether it fits their rigorous requirements. 

Sixteen years ago, we started growing durum, also known as hard amber wheat, for making parched green wheat, or frikeh. The original Economic Botany paper that described the process specified durum, so we abided. Durum is used for couscous, bulgur, fregula, tarhana and flatbreads, and is grown extensively in the Middle East and India. It is the region’s grain at hand, which explains its incidental use as a parched grain. The variety we were growing at the time had a short straw, so the heads were hard to harvest by hand, and it also turned out to be very susceptible to the strain of wheat rust that spread through the valley five years later. We abandoned the durum and started using a soft red wheat, which is a very long straw or tall variety, and resistant to that strain of rust. As we were parching the heads before maturation of the grain, the protein structure of the mature grain was unimportant. Still, we really loved the durum. A couple of years ago, we tried a different strain of durum and it has grown nicely.

Durum wheat at Ayers Creek Farm.

Botanically, durum is a cultivated species developed from wild emmer wheat, about 7,000 years ago. It is a very different beast from the hard and soft bread wheats, which were developed from wild einkorn and two other grass species. Durum and emmer have four copies of their seven chromosomes, and thus are termed a tetraploid species. Bread wheat and spelt have six copies, or hexaploid. Corn is a simple diploid. In the case of durum and bread wheat, the ploidy level simply points to two different ancestries. Although durum has higher protein content, those proteins do not produce as strong a dough as bread wheat. For this reason, it is used for pastas and flatbreads.

The milling fragrance and quality of durum are distinct as well. Because the grain is so hard, it does not mill to a flour using a traditional stone mill. Instead, the stones yield a semolina which we pass through a #26 bolt, removing most of the bran. For comparison, our cornmeal passes through #14 bolt. All foods have a standard of identity that is defined by the Food and Drug Administration under 21CFR137. Cornmeal must pass through a #12 bolt. Farina and semolina are defined as the fraction that passes through a #20 bolt. Flour is the fraction that passes through a #70 bolt. Consequently, our semolina and cornmeal are slightly finer than called for in their standards of identity. Before the development of wire cloth, sieves were made from loosely woven hemp, linen, cotton and silk. The bolt number is number of threads per inch, and silk produced the finest bolts. Mesh and bolt are synonymous, but we prefer the historical reference to a bolt of fabric, even though we now use sieves made of stainless steel wire.

La Faneuse by Émile Claus, 1896.

Our current durum strain is a much taller plant than the earlier sort, so we have a backup for parching if needed. We suspect it is also a much older strain. One of the key features of “green revolution” grains was reduction of straw length. When draft animals powered agriculture, the straw was as valuable as the grain. Long straw is also easier to scythe, then gather and stack (shock). The gathering and bundling of the plants was a task traditionally carried out by women and children. The captivating and sympathetic paintings of Émile Claus (1849-1924) and Léon Augustin Lhermitte (1844 to 1925) document the structure of field economy and society at the time. The early farmers in the west had neither labor nor machinery to harvest and transport the grain. Instead, they would “hog out” the grain by turning swine into the field and shipping the animals or cured hams.

Short straw varieties move through the combine more efficiently and are less prone to falling over (lodging) under heavy applications of fertilizers. On our farm, we appreciate the long straw because it is a good source of organic matter for crops following the grain and efficiency is not a hallmark of our endeavor anyway. We have also observed that the taller grains have fewer disease problems, possibly because of better air movement in the field as the leaves are higher above the ground. Carol has been using the milled durum in her sourdoughs at about 10 to 15 percent. It lends a pleasant sweetness to the bread as well as a moister crumb. Durum is also used to make Indian flatbreads such as chapati.

Read Anthony's response to a reader's question about short-straw wheat, pesticides and the Green Revolution.

Top: Harvest by Léon Augustin Lhermitte, 1874.

Farm Bulletin: Open Days, and a Tally of the Harvest

I was thrilled to find the latest farm update from contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm in my e-mail in-box this morning, detailing the results of the year's harvest. Please make plans to attend at least one of the open days outlined below. Your holiday table will thank you!

Autumn with his cold and wet demeanor came stomping about early, necessitating careful staging of the harvest. We have accommodated his early entrance and are now in a good state of affairs, able to schedule the remaining open days of the year. We will be open next Saturday and Sunday (9 & 10 November) from 2 to 5 p.m. We will also be open the Sunday before Thanksgiving (24th), as well as the 8th and 22nd of December.

Ayers Creek Borlotti Gaston.

The tomato harvest came to an abrupt end three weeks earlier than last year and we lost all of the zolfini and Dutch Bullet beans; sometimes a farmer has to walk away from a soggy mess rather than try to salvage a harvest of inferior quality. No point in that, tears at the heart worse than simply turning it under. There is fine crop of wheat sprouting there. We do have a few left over from 2018. Fortunately we have a good crop of Borlotti, Wapato Whites, Tarbesque and Purgatorio.  We will have Roy’s Calais flint and Peace, No War cornmeal, and whole kernels for hominy. Pumpkin seeds, cayennes and the small grains also fared well. We are able to shrug our shoulders and admit that this was a much better year than last.

My nephew and his favorite squash.

Among the fresh goods, we will have plenty of Sibley squash, beets, spuds, melons, apples, big white onions and greens. Late August, we planted a mix of bok choi, napa, daikon and turnips as a soup green mix for our own table. We had enough seed to plant about 1,000 feet, so 1,000 feet were planted as it was easier than cleaning out the seeder. We will bag up some as a field run mix. We have dubbed it the Rorschach mix, because there are so many ways you can approach the vegetables. You can pickle them, or use them in salads, stir-fry or soups. Whatever suits the moment and your character.

We have, essentially, run out of preserves, so don’t expect any until the 24th of November. We should have a full selection on the 8th of December if you are looking for Christmas gifts.

Inspiration for a bean label.

The good Borlotti crop inspired a new label (top photo); funny how that works. Carved from a cherry block, it was inspired by the lettering of Hector Guimard's signs for the Paris Metro stops. A similar lettering style graced the cover of the Modern Jazz Quartet's album Concorde (1955), over a photo of the Place de la Concorde. Preparing tomorrow’s breakfast, take a moment and listen to Sigmund Romberg’s "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise" as performed on that album. The opening bars are a canon from Bach’s "The Musical Offering" with Percy Heath taking the theme on the double bass, and Milt Jackson (vibraphone) and John Lewis (piano) working the counterpoint.

The whole album is a masterpiece.

Dried cayenne peppers.

A new label for the Ayers Creek Cayenne is in the queue. It will be in the Arabesque style carved from a block of shina, Japanese basswood, the same wood as used for the barley label. The asymmetric leaves of our cayenne are very beautiful, and we have a bunch carefully pressed as models. The softer wood carves and prints differently. Shina also chips slightly as the knife moves across the grain, which provides a softer effect. A bit more difficult to carve as a result. American basswood is another wood available. As an aside, King City, Oregon is home to McClain’s Printmaking Supplies, an excellent resource for those of us who are attracted to the medium. They are exclusively mail order.

Queue up Tom & Jerry performing Beethoven’s "Turkish March" as an inspiration for the cayenne label? Nah, a mouse is already used for the flint corn label, and we have no appetite for a copyright infringement claim. To our knowledge, Tom and Jerry never performed an Arabesque anyway.

Grinding the partially dried cayennes.

On the matter of the Ayers Creek Cayenne, we had an excellent crop this year, both in terms of quantity and quality. We have been working with this cayenne for a decade and a half, teasing out its best qualities. The effort has paid off as the fruits is now well-characterized and no longer erratic in quality. They are an amiable companion in the kitchen with a fruity complexity, very much a pepper of Oregon. The “fresh” cayennes measured 13° Brix out of the field, and after two weeks on a rack, the fruits had risen to 23° Brix as the sugars continued to develop and concentrate.

This year we sold some fresh to our restaurant accounts but we much prefer selling them dried. That said, we process fresh cayennes for our own use. We remove the seeds and placental tissue, run the fruits through a meat grinder, salt at 2.5%, and let the mash ferment. When it has aged for a few months in the garage, we will run the ferment through a food mill to remove the skins, then add some vinegar to extend and stabilize the resulting sauce. In the meantime, a jar of the fermented mash is always handy in the refrigerator.

Cayenne seeds and placental tissues.

The caps with placental tissue and seeds attached are beautiful, worthy of an ancient mosaic. It is not strictly necessary to remove these parts of the fruit, but they are where most of the heat resides and are inconsequential contributors to the overall flavor. Moreover, the corky fiber of the placental tissue detracts from the texture. We find the lighter dose of heat makes the pepper easier to use and savor, fresh or dried.

We also make an oil flavored with the cayennes. The dried cayennes are stripped of the cap, seeds and placental tissue, cut up into 1-inch (25mm) pieces. For a quart of oil, we use a quarter pound or so of prepared peppers (100 grams per liter). The oil is heated to 150 to 160°F (60 to 70°C), the heat is turned off and the cayennes are added, steeping until the oil cools. We have used raw sesame oil, grape seed oil and sunflower oil. The result is a beautiful red cayenne oil. Because of the high sugar content in the fruit, do not overheat the oil as you will end up burning the sugars.

L to R: dried cayennes: cayenne oil; ground peppers; fermented sauce.

The oil extracts the fat-soluble carotenoid pigments and aromatics from the flesh. The water soluble components remain in the fruits; specifically the dark anthocyanin-based pigments and the sugars, and these move to the front of the flavor profile. After draining the oil, we run the peppers through a meat grinder to make a separate condiment. The anthocyanin pigments in the ground peppers lend a pleasant touch of bitterness that plays well against their sugars, reminiscent of bittersweet chocolate. 

The photo (above) shows the deseeded dried fruits, the oil, the ground dry peppers after the oil is drained, and the fermented fresh fruit. At the open days, we will have samples for tasting.

Farm Bulletin: Soak Beans Before Cooking, the Farmer's Plaint

Some cooking techniques are writ in stone. Preheating your oven before baking. Rinsing basmati rice in several changes of water before cooking. Stuff like that. Others are matters of debate, with pros and cons argued vociferously on either side. One of those is soaking dried beans overnight before cooking. To no one's surprise, I give credence to contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm's explanation (see below), who, in my opinion, with Carol Boutard, grows some of the finest beans in all the land.

Why has the practice of soaking grains and beans prior to cooking persisted for several millennia? Biologically, two separate events occur when the bean awakens in the presence of moisture.

Ayers Creek Farm borlotti beans.

Germinating seeds release into the surrounding soil nasty compounds when they germinate. These compounds discourage insects, fungi and bacteria from attacking the seedling before its own defenses are developed. Some seeds also release compounds that prevent neighboring seeds from germinating, a phenomenon called allelopathy. Some people claim these compounds are nutritious and tasty.

Poppycock, I say.

I suggest tasting the soaking water and decide for yourself whether the stuff is tasty…it isn’t. This is one reason why people traditionally soaked grains and legumes, and then drained the soaking liquid before cooking them.

Soaking makes beans sweeter and smoother.

There is a second reason, more of an aesthetic gesture. The seed is very carefully packaged to provide energy in the form of simple sugars and building materials in the form of amino acids when it breaks dormancy and the embryo begins to grow. Millions of simple sugars are connected together to form starch molecules. The amino acids are connected to one another to form proteins. The starches and proteins are densely packed around the embryonic plant. When the seed germinates (i.e. soaked overnight), specialized enzymes snip apart the starches and proteins, and those unpacked units are then assembled to grow the plant. Imagine a pallet of lumber that is strapped together, efficiently packaged for storage and transport, but not yet a house. The enzymes are akin to carpenters, pulling the pallet apart and reassembling it. They also need energy to fuel their work in the form of simple sugars until the seedling is ready to photosynthesize its own food.

Black beans.

Cooking without soaking relies on the brute force of heat to break apart the package rather than the elegant, gentle, natural mechanism given us in the simple seed. Akin to running over the pallet with a bulldozer. I find the flavor and texture are better with soaking, a bit sweeter and smoother. I cannot fathom the objection to soaking them overnight, as though it is some major inconvenience. Bear in mind, the farmer spent several months tending the crop for your table.  What’s a few more hours to do justice to the farmer’s careful effort? 

So that's it.

You can find a good selection of Ayers Creek Farm dried beans at Rubinette Produce.

Farm Bulletin: Equipment and Martin Update

As important as a reliable employee, equipment a farmer can depend on is a critical component of any farm, from working the soil to planting to growing to harvesting. New equipment is often prohibitively expensive, so farmers patch and nurse and replace parts on older machines until they simply give out. Contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm offers several examples, and welcomes a new arrival.

All machinery is serviced and checked over the month before our summer harvest starts. That helps but doesn’t completely avert troublesome moments.

Early in July, we went to use the van for a quick run the hardware store; it wouldn’t shift out of first gear. Turns out mice had chewed the transmission harness and fried its brain. Brought to mind Malvina Reynolds’ “The Little Mouse.”  Fortunately, it wasn’t on a delivery run and full of berries. We had it towed to N. Columbia for a new brain and it is back home. A couple of delivery runs in a rental made us appreciate the simple, open structure of the original Sprinter vans. We have modified ours so we can comfortably load it with up to 200 flats.

The gator in action.

Light ground transportation is essential for an efficient farm operation. We have two old John Deere Gators. Each has seen two decades and several thousands of hours of service. We have two small ATVs of the same age. They have been reliable but we decided we needed a back-up utility vehicle after an ATV clutch failed. The van problem also spooked us.

We wanted to avoid another internal combustion engine to feed and service. Last year, Polaris introduced an electric version of its Ranger (top photo). After a couple of weeks of using it, we are very happy. Polaris mostly makes aggressive, noisy recreational off-road vehicles with sinister feline or heavy bull lines designed to show dominion over nature. It was a surprise to stumble upon this silent, gentle and rather comely bit of iron and plastic from the company. It will be staff’s primary transportation after Carol's ATV returns. We are ready to convert to electric ATVs when they are available.

Colorful burros for holding berry flats.

On a simpler equipment level, staff use “burros” to hold and move the berry flats as they fill them. Made by us of lightweight cedar and thin plywood about 15 years ago, they were due for rehabilitation and modification. The burros were getting rickety and had been repaired at various times. The trays were a bit too big so berries would fall between the walls of the tray and the flat, staining the flat. We might say, who cares? Well, staff did and mentioned it, so the observation was heeded. The plywood had started to disintegrate so it was time to address the problems.

We reduced the dimensions of the tray and used lightweight but rigid plastic “twin-wall” for its bottom. The structure is pulled together with threaded rods to support the tray. As a final gesture, we painted the various parts and assembled ten different and cheerful burros, each with its own markings. No two are alike.

A young martin with immature plumage.

The handle of the burro makes an attractive perch for birds, so we tip them on their side in the field so they stay clean.

Finally, the purple martins successfully raised their brood of six. We are in the processing of adding 16 gourd-style nesting boxes specifically designed for the birds. The young that emerged this year will be of breeding age in 2021. As they are a gregarious species, other mature birds are expected to join our breeding pair next year.

Photos of Polaris ATV, burros and purple martin by Anthony Boutard.

Farm Bulletin: Remembering Martie

More than a place to buy local products and meet your farmer, a farmers' market is a place where longterm friendships can grow. In this remembrance, contributor Anthony Boutard recalls Ayers Creek Farm's longtime customer Martie Sucec, she of the blackberry slump and a dedicated fan of the farm's berries.

We decided to become vendors at the newly formed Hillsdale Farmers’ Market, debuting on Bastille Day 2002. Our first market e-mail was sent to our friend Martie Sucec. Martie loved Boysenberries above all other fruit, and we were advising her that we would have a flat set aside that weekend. We kept her updated week-to-week, and soon her friends and other customers asked to be included.

Martie Sucec.

A lay editor at Kaiser Permanente’s Center for Public Health Research, Martie had a deep appreciation for language, a loathing of jargon, and a kind manner. Any author worth their salt would work hard for her approval. When asked how he started Coming into the Country, John McPhee quipped he started with “Dear Mom,” whiting out that salutation when he was done. My market essays often started with “Dear Martie” in mind.

When Chester season started that year, Martie came back the next week with a slump and a couple dozen copies of the recipe which she had gleaned from an old edition of Gourmet (recipe below). Martie ritualized the gesture and for fourteen years we would return home with a slump made the first Chesters of the season. Vendors who counted knew her by name.

Carol first encountered Martie 25 years ago—meet is too feeble a word to describe such an event—and came home describing the neighborhood chair of the Multnomah Village Neighborhood Association as an amazing person. Later, I had my own encounter and shared Carol’s sentiment. At one point, I told Martie that she reminded me of General Anna, a central character in Jean Merrill’s The Pushcart War, a book I had purchased at a school book fair and read as a 5th grader. A couple of days later, having read the book, Martie chuckled about how much she enjoyed Anna, a principled and determined resolver of conflict.

Purple martins at Ayers Creek.

Martie died in April. That same week a purple martin arrived at the farm, checking out one of the bird boxes used by kestrels, starlings and flickers. A week later, he returned accompanied by his mate and, if I am interpreting their behavior correctly, they are busy feeding chicks. Those handsome, gregarious birds will be associated with memories of Martie, our handsome, gregarious friend.

Martins have a quality described as site fidelity, with the birds returning to the nesting site year-after-year. The martins, and Marties fondness for Boysenberries, slumps, grey shallots and Sibley squash will keep her in our mind all year.

Here is a brief tribute to her from her neighborhood.

Blackberry Slump

4 c. fresh blackberries (2-3 pints)
2 tsp. lemon juice (add some zest, if you like more lemony flavor)
3/4 c. sugar, depending on the sweetness of berries, or to taste
1 c. all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
3/4 c. milk (whole, 2%, hemp or soy) room temperature
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted

Preheat oven to 375°.

Put berries in an ungreased 5 to 6-cup casserole, gratin dish, deep dish or ceramic pie plate and sprinkle evenly with about 1/2 cup of the sugar. Sift together flour, baking powder, salt, and remaining sugar into a medium bowl. Add milk and melted butter and whisk until smooth, then pour over berries (don’t worry if berries are not completely covered). Bake slump in middle of oven until top is golden, 35-45 minutes. Transfer to a rack and cool 20 minutes. Serve warm with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream.

Photos of purple martins by Anthony Boutard.

Farm Bulletin: Early Season Update

I've seen folks posting pictures on their social media feeds of some early season grains and produce from Ayers Creek Farm, so I was glad when the following update from contributor Anthony Boutard arrived in my in-box.

Around this time of year I receive inquiries regarding the upcoming season. Might as well get a jump on the questions. Here is how things look in the field.

A tote of organic potting mix from OBC Northwest.

After dealing with last year’s disastrous brand name starting mix, chronicled earlier, this year we purchased our potting mix from OBC Northwest. OBC, once the Oregon Bag Company, morphed into supplying greenhouse supplies when cleaning and reusing bags became a historical artifact. No lofty claims advanced by creative artwork on the package (below left). It is a simple and generic organic mix in a plain white tote which we supplement on our own by adding some bonemeal, kelp, humic acid and supplemental wetting agent.

The wetting agent allowed in organic farming is derived from yucca and is a very important component of the mix. In soilless potting mixes, the yucca extract promotes the even wetting of the peat and compost. At transplanting, it keeps the area around the roots moist so they will grow easily into the surrounding native soil. As the yucca extract is an organic compound, it is perishable, breaking down over time, rendering the mix stale after a few months. At that point it is nearly impossible to resaturate the soilless mix properly. The water just passes through as in a sieve, though it is not obvious that the mix has not absorbed adequate water. Refreshing the wetting agent is an insurance policy. The other problem with last year's mix was low-grade compost. The company was obviously cutting corners to meet demand.  

Chester blackberries.

The peppers and tomatoes are now in the field and look great. The first run of direct sown crops—the corns, beans and chickpeas—are in the ground as well. The rain has come at the right times. Mustard, durum and soft red wheat are sown in November, and are also in fine shape. Sometimes a planting season will, by chance, progress smoothly, much in the same way as a Saturday delivery run when we happen to be in the van for every aria in the Met’s broadcast of La Boheme. Some years, on the other hand, are a challenge, a delivery with no relief from unsatisfying driving music.

The pollination of the perennial fruits occurs April through June. For the small fruits, the crop looks excellent. Prompting us to buy another freezer to increase production of Loganberry and Boysenberry preserves. Plums and apples have a good set. The cherries were in bloom during several frosty nights and the crop is sparse, noncommercial. The Chester blackberry bloom is beginning, the hives were placed last week, and this run of dry, warm weather is helpful.

In early May, we were inspected for compliance with the rules of the National Organic Program (NOP). This is our 20th year as certified organic growers. The first four years preceded the NOP, and compliance was measured against the standards laid out by the International Federation of Organic Movements (IFOAM). Every few years, the certifying agency decides they need to bust you for something. Predictable and infuriating, but nothing personal.

Marionberries.

This year, our certifier decided that we needed to have an Organic Handler Plan in addition to the Organic Crop Plan. Never mind that every crop we sell is grown by us, and every detail required in the handling plan is already covered in the crop plan, making the handler plan a pointless redundancy. As an aside, it is very hard to be a commercial farmer who does not handle the crops they grow. For 19 years this was deemed sensible by a succession of reviewers and inspectors, but now it is obvious to a new inspector that has never seen seen our farm that we might be perpetuating an epic fraud.

With a well-articulated snarl, the handler plan was submitted. Apparently, a big potential for fraud was averted as a result. Now we have to put a sticker in the bags denoting the lot number. Simply adding “Lot number 2018” will placate the bean counters. Without a handler plan, this fraud preventing measure would have gone uncorrected. Navigating life, it is best not to get hung up on these arbitrary indignities.

We will be scheduling some open days again this year, coinciding with the early cane berry ripening, the first week for the Chesters, early September for the Astianas and grapes, an early October date, culminating with days before Thanksgiving and Christmas.

In between, Josh Alsberg at Rubinette Produce (2340 NE Sandy) maintains a good selection of our goods—fresh and dry. Jim Dixon at Real Good Food also carries some odds and ends in his new store on NE Couch at 10th.

Farm Bulletin: Musings on the Arch Cape Chicory Harvest

The farm in winter is often portrayed as a dormant time, with barren fields devoid of activity but for the stalks and dead detritus of the previous year's crops. Nothing could be further from the truth, as elucidated by contributor Anthony Boutard of Ayers Creek Farm.

As we work our way down the row, it is clear the farmers are not the only organisms harvesting the chicory. We share the field with three different rodents: pocket gophers, voles and mice. We all have our own harvesting methods and challenges.

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Our field knives: 6” and 5" produce (green, brown, white), lettuce and an 18” machete type.

Farmers use several different harvest knives. We maintain a fleet of ten six-inch produce knives and eight five-inch produce knives. These have straight blades and a square tip, the sort produce staff have in their holster at the grocery store. These knives are cheap (~$14) and rugged. The six-inch knife is safe and easy to use in the field. The curved blades and sharp points of a chef’s knife are fine in the kitchen but a dangerous menace in the field. A lettuce knife is a more specialized tool, having two cutting edges. Carol and Linda use these to liberate the head from the ground, and shift to the produce knife for trimming. The five-inch knives, a bit too small for the field, are useful for the final trimming at the sink. For other tasks, the heft of the machete-style knives is useful.

Because the knives are used in the abrasive environment of the soil, after a couple of hours the edge is lost, and the knife is swapped out for a sharp one. We go through three or four knives in short order. Back at the shed, we put a fresh edge on the knives with an electric sharpener. A few years ago, a farm magazine had an absurd article telling farmers how sharpen their knives with an oil stone. Even with the mechanical sharpener, the effort takes  30 to 45 minutes. I sharpen my wood block tools with a series of Japanese water stones, but for a knife that will return to soil the next day it is a stupid waste of time. Staff prefer to use a mill bastard file which is a bit coarse for my tastes, but I always defer to them on the matter of tools they use.

Waterproof gloves round out the harvest tools. One hazard with field gloves is that it is easy to wind up with a community of left hand specimens. The cure is to name each pair and write the name on both gloves. For example, we have pairs named Jasper, Maine, Moscow and Olive. Once named, the left and right gloves hang together, a bit of magic I can’t explain.

Field vole.

Our most common companions in the field are voles. In literature, subterranean creatures shunning the sun invariably lack a sense of humor. Dwarfs and trolls, whether in Wagner, the Norse legends or Tolkien, are difficult characters. And so it is with the voles and gophers. During the winter, the gophers are lethargic and consume very little. They are a summertime menace. In contrast, voles become hyperactive in the winter.

Voles are aggressive hoarders, relentlessly caching food. In the chicories, they start with the root, working their way to the crown. Then they pull the leaves into their tunnel. (Top photo: A fine chicory hollowed out by a vole, a beautiful remnant.) Plant materials are masticated and then cached in hollowed out areas where the vegetation ferments, similar to ensilage. They aspire to no leisure activities, never ceasing in building their cache accounts. Voles excavate miles of tunnels, keeping them away from the eyes of predators. The voles have a short tail, small, beady eyes and their ears sit close to the head. They seldom leave the safety of their tunnels. In the winter they live communally in a hole lined with dry grass, conserving their energy. Even during the wettest weather, the underground nest stays dry.

Mice leave the hole (right, near the snow) for a meal and chew on the chicory leaves.

We also encounter mice in the field. They don’t cache vegetation. Mice cache and consume seeds, and they seek out insect larvae and pupae. They eat some foliage to round out their diet. During the winter they also rest communally in grass-lined nests, with one or two sallying forth to feed while the others keep the nest warm. The live in underground burrows, or in hollow logs, irrigation pipes, bird houses, cars or any place providing shelter. They have long tails for balance, large ears to hear advancing predators and bulging eyes that give them a range of view, all valuable for an animal that forages above ground. They are adept climbers, and they have a more beguiling presence than their subterranean-dwelling kin.

The mouse seed caches are visible in both the cultivated and uncultivated areas of the farm. Not every store of seeds is consumed, and those left uneaten sprout. In the photo above, tufts of native grass betray an unused granary. In the field, clumps of chickpeas, wheat, corn and favas in a similar pattern are common.

Clumps of grass emerge from unused granaries.

What eats get eaten. A healthy population of rodents is the base for a healthy population of predators. We have barn and great-horned owls, kestrels, red-tail hawks, great blue herons and weasels all partaking of the fine rodent riches. The barn owls hunt in the open fields and the great-horned owls tend to stay in the cover of the oak savannah. No, predators do not control the rodent populations; it is exactly the reverse, rodent populations drive survival of the predator young. Without adequate food, the young languish and die.

Both owls currently have chicks in the nest, and a good rodent year means more of these chicks will become adults. The owls tear apart the rodents, regurgitate a cast or pellet of fir and bones. The herons gulp down their prey whole. Red-tailed hawks and kestrels tear apart their prey. The kestrels don’t like the stomachs, so they eviscerate their prey, leaving a pile of guts near the feeding perch. The kestrels are more resilient than owls and other raptors because they feed happily on larger insects such as grasshoppers, frogs, worms and small snakes. As an aside, owls are more closely related to parrots than the hawks and falcons.

Vole guts left on top of a birdhouse by a kestrel.

Aside from poison, which we would never use, there is no means of controlling these small rodents. Even poison baits are a stop gap measure of dubious efficacy, just a damaging outlet of the farmer’s anger. The gophers, mice and voles are part of the endeavor and, in their own right, remarkable creatures. A heathy ecosystem self-corrects. Rodent populations are cyclical. In 2013, we had intense rodent pressure and lost the entire chicory crop. As a concession prize, a young bobcat took up residence for several months. Tito was not happy about the matter, though. The following year, voles were scarce.

We are on a wildlife corridor, so various creatures, elk, deer and mink move through the farm. Thursday night, Abel saw a cougar and her kits near the barn. They are probably moving to the ridge dominated by Bald Peak in search of prey, deer in particular, but quite possibly small livestock as well.

Read more of Anthony's Farm Bulletins. Photo of vole from Wikipedia. All other photos by Anthony Boutard.