The passing of Labour Day heralds a number of changes to our farm. From now until the snows of December, we are entering full harvest mode, and everything rides on its successful conclusion.
We have invested up to eight months on some crops such as celeriac and leeks, seeding, transplanting, weeding, more weeding, and protecting them from various pests and diseases. All this has soaked up large amounts of time, space, organic inputs, and labour, and it’s too easy to lose one’s shirt over inefficiencies at harvest time. There is a system for doing everything on a farm. I learned that fresh out of university on my first trip home to Tina’s farm. The only thing that kept me going mucking out the calf pens was pride, as Tina out-paced me time and again, forking manure-packed straw into a wheelbarrow. She had a system, and I would do well to learn it.
It is therefore a good thing that when the time comes to harvest the fruits (well, vegetables) of our labour, our crew has had eight months to learn the various systems we’ve developed, to quickly and carefully harvest each of the 50 or so crops we grow. I don’t think I can say enough about the skill level required to efficiently harvest items requiring a high degree of in-field editing for our discerning customers, or how impressed I am by our team’s ability to carry
it off week after week, in any weather.
There is more than just a shift in tempo and scenery on our farm as we move into fall. Around the middle of August, the soundscape changes, almost overnight. Now that the young of the season have fledged and left their nests, male birds no longer need to expend energy advertising territories (remember, efficiency), and so they stop singing. Fall is the time of the insects. The farm chorus switches from the complex harmonies and arias of the birds, to the buzzes, chirps, and trills of cicadas, grasshoppers, crickets, and katydids, while the ever-present bees provide a background drone (pun intended), and more and more butterflies appear, to feed on developing flowers. It’s as if the insects are providing a soundtrack for the buzz of energy and electricity on our farm as it gears up for fall harvest.
The most important consideration in the crops we grow isn’t yield, it’s flavour. As I see it, there are four forces at work that, in combination, will have a huge bearing on the flavour of the food we grow. They are: seed, soil, climate, and the farmer.
There is huge variation in flavour intensity and profile within each vegetable seed variety available on the market, and the farmer typically balances practical considerations such as days to maturity or ease of mechanical harvest, with the flavour characteristics of each variety, as he makes his choice of what to grow (yes Virginia, there IS a trade off here).
Soil also has a massive bearing on flavour development, and the farmer (working with soil consultants), has the ability to manage much more than the N, P, and K levels (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium), to boost flavour and shelf life through micronutrient management as well.
Climate, and its impact on flavour, is the main reason why our farm is such a late finisher in the harvest race. As root crops develop, fall frosts trigger a biochemical reaction in the still-growing crops. Below-freezing temperatures signal the plants to manufacture anti-freeze, so the roots survive the winter, and that anti-freeze (luckily for us), is sugar. Successive frosts cause the plants to convert the starches in their roots into sugars (evolutionarily speaking, that’s one of the reasons they have starchy roots in the first place). Once again, it’s up to the farmer to take advantage of this or not, through planting and harvest timing.
As with most things in life, it seems that one can’t grow good tasting food without a trade-off in effort.
As the Snow Buntings arrive in December to overwinter on our farm (and eat our pigweed seeds!), we will be wrapping up our harvest and, hopefully, filling our cold storage with healthy, tasty vegetables for our restaurant and market customers, through Christmas dinner and into the cold months of winter. Come January, we start the cycle again.
Antony John is an organic farmer, painter and avid birdwatcher. He lives near Stratford. This is the fourth and final in a series of reflections on the food we grow and buy.